The most important and controversial court case relating to slavery was Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford. Scott was an enslaved man whose owner, a military surgeon, took him to the free state of Illinois and into the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase territory where Congress by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had declared that slavery could not exist. After twelve years Scott returned to St. Louis with his master, who died in 1843. In 1846 Scott sued his owner's widow for his freedom arguing that the years he spent in the free territories made him free. Over the next decade the case made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court issued what was to become a landmark decision, Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford. Delivered by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a pro-slavery Marylander, the decision of the court contained three important elements: 1. Neither Scott nor any other slave could become free by virtue of residence in a free state or territory; 2. Negroes, slave or free, were not citizens, and therefore did not have the right to sue in federal court; and 3. Under the Constitution, Congress did not have the power to exclude slavery from the western territories, and therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Slaves were property, and the government could not violate a slave owner's right to property by prohibiting slavery in the territories.
These engravings of Scott, his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott, and their two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, were printed on the front page of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on June 27, 1857, accompanying an article about Scott and his life since the Supreme Court decision.
The rights of slave owners to take their enslaved property into the western territories was a question of great political importance in the 1850s. Most southerners applauded the Scott decision, but opponents of slavery and abolitions denounced it. The Fourteenth Amendment, by defining all people born in or naturalized in the United States as citizens overturned the decision's declaration that African Americans had no legal rights.
1. Who was Dred Scott?
2. What was a free state?
2. What was the importance of the Dred Scott decision?
1. How do you think the political climate of the day affected the Dred Scott decision? How do you think the verdict would have been different had it been decided in the 1840s?
2. Why do you think that Chief Justice Taney and the Supreme Court extended their decision to include the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise?
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Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Maltz, Earl M. Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.
Ehrlich, Walter. "The Origins of the Dred Scott Case." Journal of Negro History 59, no. 2 (April 1974): 132–142.