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Scott v. Sandford
[60 U.S. 393]
Taney Court,  Decided 7-2,  3/7/1857
Read the actual decision


Chief Justice Roger B. TaneyThis is the well-known Dred Scott decision, noted for its acceptance of the constitutionality of slavery. Not so well known, but also important, it was only the second time -- the first being in 1803 -- that the Supreme Court overturned a major piece of Congressional legislation.

The facts of the case, familiar to those who lived with slavery, can be a bit difficult to follow more than a century after its demise.

Dred Scott was a slave, born in Virginia, who served his master in St. Louis, Missouri, then a slave state under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1833, he was sold to an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson. As Emerson moved around in his duties, so often did Scott. During the thirties, Scott followed his master to both the free state of Illinois, and the free territory of Wisconsin. While in Wisconsin, Scott married Harriet Robinson, whose ownership was transferred to Emerson, after which they all returned to Missouri.

In 1838, Dr. Emerson married one Irene Sanford. (The spelling was later changed by accident during court proceedings.) Dr. Emerson died in 1843, after a stint in Florida fighting Seminoles. Scott and his other slaves continued to work for Mrs. Emerson in St. Louis, occasionally being hired out to other employers as was the custom.

In 1846, Scott and his wife filed lawsuits claiming their freedom under Missouri's standing legal doctrine of "once free, always free." Since they had resided for a time in free Wisconsin Territory, they reasoned, they should be entitled to their freedom under this doctrine. The original suit had nothing to do with the higher arguments of the slavery issue; they sought only their own emancipation.

The case was tried twice due to a technicality, but in 1850 the second court unhesitatingly set the Scotts free under the Missouri doctrine. Unfortunately, the delay in deciding his case was fateful. During the intervening period, Scott's wages had been held in escrow. Mrs. Emerson had remarried and moved east, leaving her brother, John Sanford, to handle the affairs in St. Louis. Sanford was hard-pressed to yield up the accumulated wages, and instead filed an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. It was at this stage that the case ceased being routine, and became a cause cèlébre for both sides of the slavery issue.

The Missouri Court, reacting to pro-slavery pressure, threw out both precedent and existing doctrine, and overturned the lower court decision, declaring that Missouri would not have its attitudes dictated by external abolitionists. Scott was again a slave. (His wife's parallel case is not detailed, as it was always decided on the basis of her husband's.)

Because a recent precedent in Strader v. Graham (1851) may have encouraged the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against Scott without considering the merits of the case, Scott's lawyers did not appeal directly to the High Court. Instead they initiated a new suit, naming Sanford as defendant for technical reasons. As the case went to trial in federal court, Sanford raised new issues which promised to increase the controversy even further, and pin the courts into a tighter corner.

First, his attorneys proposed that, as a slave, Scott was not a citizen of the United States and, therefore, had no right to sue at all. Secondly, they argued that, since slaves were in fact private property, Congress had exceeded its authority when it passed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 regulating slavery within the territories. (Remember that the free status of Wisconsin is at the core of this suit.) As property, slaves, then, were subject to the protections accorded private property by the Constitution. Using these arguments, Sanford changed the question from whether Missouri could return Scott to slavery, to whether he had ever, in fact, been free.

At first, the Court leaned toward dismissing the case under the precedent set by Strader, in essence saying that the Missouri court had ultimate jurisdiction over its own laws. But the turbulence of the times, and a majority on the Court being either Southerners or sympathizers, pushed the Court to tackle the underlying controversy.

Writing for a majority split along ideological lines, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney found Scott to be still a slave for several reasons, to wit:

  • While blacks were citizens of some states, they were not citizens of the United States, and therefore could not sue in federal court. Lacking jurisdiction, the Court must dismiss.
  • The Missouri Compromise was invalid, since Congress' authority to abolish slavery in the territories could not be found in the Constitution. Slaves were property and subject to the protections accorded property.
  • Regardless of the foregoing, if a slave were to visit a free state, and then return voluntarily to a slave state, his status was subject to the laws of the latter. The Court would not interfere with the lawful decisions of the Missouri Court.

Needless to say, the Scott decision unleashed a firestorm of outrage from abolitionists, met with an equal barrage of approval from slavery's supporters, both on the street and in Congress. The added spark created by the case only helped push America towards the inevitable Civil War which began four years later.

However, from a constructionist point of view, despite modern legal opinions decrying the decision as the worst the Court has ever made, the principles espoused by the Court in Scott, while ugly by our standards, were not as disrespectful of the Constitution at that time as are many of the social reengineering decisions derived by our modern Court.

All arguments aside, the issue was ultimately decided in the manner which the Constitution itself prescribes -- by amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment made the institution of slavery illegal nationwide, and the Fourteenth granted ex-slaves full citizenship and all rights accorded citizens.

There are two underlying sadnesses to the story of this case. The first is that the constitutional amendment process that ultimately decided the question would not be carried out before a destructive war that pitted American against American. The second is that Dred Scott died in 1858, seven years before he would have been finally free.


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Other decisions pertaining to Civil Rights:

Barrows v. Jackson    [346 U.S. 249 (1905)]  Warren Court
Batson v. Kentucky    [476 U.S. 79 (1986)]  Burger Court
Bernel v. Fainter    [104 S.Ct. 2312 (1984) (1905)]  Burger Court
Brown v. Board of Education    [349 U.S. 294 (1955)]  Warren Court
Civil Rights Cases    [109 U.S. 3 (1883)]  Waite Court
Craig v. Boren    [429 U.S. 190 (1976)]  Burger Court
Goesaert v. Cleary    [335 U.S. 464 (1905)]  Vinson Court
Griggs v. Duke Power    [401 U.S. 424 (1971)]  Burger Court
Grovey v. Townsend    [295 U.S. 45 (1935)]  Hughes Court
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States    [379 U.S. 241 (1964)]  Warren Court
Hoyt v. Florida    [368 U.S. 57 (1961)]  Warren Court
Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.    [392 U.S. 409 (1968)]  Warren Court
Korematsu v. United States    [323 U.S. 214 (1944)]  Stone Court
Plessy v. Ferguson    [163 U.S. 537 (1896)]  Fuller Court
Powell v. Alabama    [287 U.S. 45 (1932)]  Hughes Court
Shelly v. Kraemer    [334 U.S. 1 (1948)]  Vinson Court
Smith v. Allwright    [321 U.S. 649 (1944)]  Stone Court
United States v. Cruikshank    [92 U.S. 542 (1876)]  Waite Court
United Steel Workers of America v. Weber    [443 U.S. 193 (1979)]  Burger Court
University of California v. Bakke    [438 U.S. 265 (1978)]  Burger Court

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