The Dred Scott Case
In 1850, Dred Scott sued for his freedom upon his return to the slave state of Missouri. Scott argued that since he and his family had lived freely in Illinois and in the Wisconsin territory for a few years, they were no longer slaves. A St. Louis court ruled in his favor but the ruling was overturned two years later and the case finally reached the United States Supreme Court in 1857.
A search on the phrase, Dred Scott, produces The Case of Dred Scott in the United States Supreme Court, in which the Supreme Court ruled against Scott. Chief Justice Taney’s majority decision explained that blacks “are not . . . included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides,” (page 7). Taney later noted that since Scott was not a citizen of Missouri, he was “not entitled as such to sue in its courts” (page 22).
In addition to addressing the question of citizenship, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for Congress to distinguish between slaves and other types of personal property. Therefore, the Court concluded that the ban on slavery in U.S. territories via the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was “void; and that neither Dred Scott himself, nor any of his family, were made free by being carried into this territory, even if they had been carried there by the owner, with the intention of becoming a permanent resident,” (page 38).
- How do you think abolitionist and proslavery forces reacted to the ruling that blacks could not claim “the rights and privileges” of U.S. citizenship? What did this ruling mean for free blacks living in the North?
- How does Chief Justice Taney’s ruling compare with South Carolina Senator A.P. Butler’s claim in Proceedings of the United States Senate: “A free man of color . . . [in South Carolina] may and does possess many civil rights . . . In fact, he has all the rights, except what may be called the complete right, of citizenship.”
- What is the significance of the fact that Taney included an interpretation of the founding fathers’ intent in his decision? What does this add to his ruling? What does it add to the national debate going on at the time? Do you agree with his interpretation? Why or why not? Does it matter what the founding fathers’ original intent was? Why or why not?
- How would you expect the Court’s ruling to have influenced the debate over slavery and popular sovereignty in territories such as Kansas and Nebraska?
- Why do you think that the Dred Scott decision is considered a landmark case for the Supreme Court?
- How do you think that this decision might have influenced the balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government?