Dred Scott Decision
Scott versus Emerson


Dred Scott Decision was an important ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States on the issue of slavery. The decision, which was made in 1857, declared that no black -- free or slave -- could claim United States citizenship. It also stated that Congress could not prohibit slavery in United States territories.

The ruling aroused angry resentment in the North and led the nation a step closer to civil war. It also influenced the introduction and passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War (1861-1865). The amendment, adopted in 1868, extended citizenship to former slaves and gave them full civil rights.

The background of the case. Dred Scott was the slave of a U.S. Army surgeon, John Emerson of Missouri, a state that permitted slavery. In 1834, Scott went with Emerson to live in Illinois, which prohibited slavery. They later lived in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. In 1838, Scott returned to Missouri with Emerson. Emerson died there in 1843, and three years later Scott sued the surgeon's widow for his freedom.

Scott based his suit on the argument that his former residence in a free state and a free territory -- Illinois and Wisconsin -- made him a free man. A state circuit court ruled in Scott's favor, but the Missouri Supreme Court later reversed the decision. Meanwhile, Scott had become legally regarded as the property of John F. A. Sanford (spelled Sandford in the U.S. Supreme Court records) of New York. Because Sanford did not live in Missouri, Scott's lawyers were able to transfer the case to a federal court. This court ruled against Scott, and his lawyers then took the case to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruling. By a majority of 7 to 2, the Supreme Court ruled that Scott could not bring a suit in a federal court. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, speaking for the majority, declared that Scott could not do so because blacks were not U.S. citizens.

The court could have simply dismissed the case after ruling on Scott's citizenship. But there was a growing national desire for a ruling on the constitutionality of such laws as the Missouri Compromise. Therefore, the court discussed this issue as part of its decision in the Dred Scott case. By a smaller majority, it ruled that the Missouri Compromise, which had been repealed in 1854, was unconstitutional. Taney argued that because slaves were property, Congress could not forbid slavery in the territories without violating a slaveowner's constitutional right to own property.

Dred Scott himself was sold shortly afterward. His new owner gave him his freedom two months after the Supreme Court decision.

Contributor: Stanley I. Kutler, Ph.D., E. Gordon Fox Prof. of American Institutions, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison.

Additional resources

Ehrlich, Walter. They Have No Rights: Dred Scott's Struggle for Freedom. Greenwood, 1979.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. Oxford, 1978.


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