Dred Scott vs. Sanford 1857

"A black man has no rights which a white man is bound to respect."


In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that all blacks couldn't be citizens of the United States. No matter if they were bound in slavery or if they were free men, their citizenship was denied. Therefore, blacks also didn't have the right to sue in court. Blacks, declared to be property, couldn't be taken from their owners. Finally, the court declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to be unconstitutional, allowing slavery in all U.S. territories.

Dred Scott, a black slave belonging to Dr. John Emerson sued for his freedom after he had lived with his owner in both a free state and a free territory. He originally worked for Dr. Emerson in Missouri, a slave state. However, due to his work as an army surgeon, Dr. Emerson transferred to Illinois, a free state, and then to Wisconsin territory, where slavery was banned under the Missouri Compromise, taking Dred Scott with him. They ended up back in Missouri. When Dr. Emerson died, Dred Scott sued for his (and his wife's and two children's) freedom, arguing that residence in a free state and territory ended his bondage as a slave.

In a lower court in St. Louis, Dred Scott won his case. However, the decision was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court. The case was finally taken up with the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled against Scott in a 7-2 decision. Blacks were considered to be property rather than people, and consequently were no longer allowed to petition for rights. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney disputed the statement that "all men are created equal," penned in the United States Declaration of Independence. "It is too clear for dispute," he declared, "that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration. . . ." He opposed the belief that blacks were originally meant to be included in that American ideal.

Dr. Eric Foner of Columbia University summarizes the Dred Scott decision of 1857.

-> Dred Scott: A black slave belonging to Dr. John Emerson who sued for his freedom after he had lived with his owner in both a free state and a free territory.

-> John F. A. Sanford: The brother of the widow of Dr. Emerson who she turned the case over to and he acted on her behalf.

-> Roger B. Taney: The Supreme Court Justice who decided the case, favoring Sanford

-> Dred Scott was a Missouri slave. Sold to army surgeon John Emerson in Saint Louis around 1833, Scott was taken to Illinois, a free state, and on to the free Wisconsin Territory before returning to Missouri. When Emerson died in 1843, Scott sued Emerson's widow for his freedom in the Missouri supreme court, claiming that his residence in the “free soil” of Illinois made him a free man. After defeat in State courts, Scott brought suit in a local federal court. Eleven years after Scott's initial suit, the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court.
-> The case inflamed regional feelings about slavery, increasing sectionalism.


-> St. Louis, Missouriexternal image 99065-004-978D70AB.jpg

-> 1857

-> ...this case made such a fuss:
At the time, slavery proved to be a huge issue, causing a split between pro-slavery people and abolitionists. The Dred Scott vs. Sanford case brought attention to the already hot topics of the rights of the black man, the circumstances under which a slave can be granted his or her freedom, and the spread/ tolerance of slavery throughout U.S. states and territories.
-> ...Scott sued for his freedom:
Dred Scott sued for his freedom, because he believed that his residence in a free state ended his bondage as a slave. Unsurprisingly, pro-slavery people, especially those who didn't think blacks deserved the same rights as whites, disagreed.
-> ...the Supreme Court ruled against Scott:
Chief Justice Taney ruled against him, because he believed that blacks were property, and therefore held no rights, which included the right to sue. He didn't believe that the phrase "all men are created equal" included blacks. The Supreme Court also decided the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional, providing another reason for Scott being rightfully denied his freedom.

external image fl362.jpg


Northerners, primarily abolitionists, believed that Dred Scott should be granted his freedom. They thought it unfair that the Supreme Court ruled against him in such a manner, more or less saying that blacks weren't even people. They were angry that Dred Scott wasn't free, even though he lived in a free state for years, as this totally disregarded their laws. They were also extremely upset over the Supreme Court ruling that the Missouri Compromise of 1824 was unconstitutional, as that upset the balance between slave and free states. If slavery was to now be allowed everywhere, because slaves were considered property, therefore holding to the property rights in the U.S. Constitution, then that lowered the influence of the North, increasing that of the South. Northerners worried that, if things kept moving in that direction, slavery would eventually be brought back to the North. They saw it as a huge step in the spread of slavery throughout the United States, and as an attack on the basic rights awarded to all Americans, which included freedom. Liberty was one of the principles on which the nation was founded, and the Dred Scott vs. Sanford decision completely went against that. The decision stated that slavery cannot be prohibited in the territories, which, according to Dr. Eric Foner, basically called the entire Republican platform, which included Northerners and Lincoln, unconstitutional.


Southerners, primarily white, rejoiced at the decision, because it meant that slavery was legal in all of the territories. This was just what they had always wanted. The African Americans were angry that such an injustice had taken place by the government. The South really wanted their slaves to work their land, and they didn't want slavery to be abolished. They felt they had more power, now that they had beat the North in such a big debate. Southerners were ecstatic that they had increased their influence throughout the United States. Due to the declaration that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, the balance of slave and free states was upset in the South's favor. The South enjoyed a strong hold on the power of the government, and this decision verified that the South was still primarily in power. Southern supporters of slavery also argued that the Dred Scott vs. Sanford decision was essential to the preservation of the Union, as it decreased sectionalism. If slavery had no boundaries, then it would no longer be a debate between the North and the South, simply a debate between pro- and anti- slavery believers. (As stated in the Richmond Enquirer.) Southerners also saw the decision as one vindicating their rights within the United States.


The Dred Scott vs. Sanford decision deserves a strong grade in how devisive it was in the lead-up to the Civil War. It greatly increased the tensions between the North and the South, as the beliefs of pro- (mostly in the South) and anti- (mostly in the North) slavery people clashed. To recap from previous statements, the North was outraged over the decision. Not only were abolitionists deeply angered by the Court's ruling that blacks weren't even citizens (that they were property), which was a huge statement of white supremacy, but Northerners expressed concerns over the spread of slavery. They worried that slavery would eventually find its way back into the North. The issue of states' rights was also brought up, as the Court's ruling that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional took away the power of states to prohibit slavery within their borders. Southerners, on the other hand, saw the decision as a vindication of their rights in the United States, and as proof of their influence and power in the government. The South enjoyed their increase in power, due to the upset of the balance of slave and free states in their favor. However, the case deepened the rift between the North and the South. The reasons why it wouldn't receive an even higher grade are that some things, such as the John Brown episode, deserve that grade of 5, and because it didn't anger the South. The Civil War began mostly as an issue of Southern discontent with the election of Lincoln and his plans against slavery. The South was the section that was outraged and seceded, not the North. While the decision greatly increased tensions between the North and the South, it angered the North instead of the South. The North was fiercely opposed to the decision, while the South was content. This case would not be one that the South would secede over. Instead, things like John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry contributed to the anger of the South. The Dred Scott vs. Sanford decision didn't do that - it actually pleased the South. What it did was increase sectionalism in the United States, so that when it came to the Civil War, reconciliation wasn't that probable.

external image 019.gif


"About the Dred Scott Case." Dred Scott Case Collection. 15 May. 2009. <http://library.wustl.edu/vlib/dredscott/>.

DRED SCOTT VS. SANFORD 1857." Evolution of Civil Rights. 2000. 14 May. 2009.


"Dred Scott Case." Infoplease. 17 May. 2009. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0816089.htmly.

"Dred Scott Case: The Supreme Court Decision ." PBS. 15 May. 2009. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2933.html>.

"Dred Scott v. Sandford." Wikipedia. 13 May. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dred_Scott_v._Sandford>.

"The Dred Scott Decision of 1857." Youtube. 16 May. 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qptqSpAXjBM&feature=related>.