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History and GovernmentSupreme CourtCases

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)


Historical Background

By the mid-1850s, sectional conflict over the extension of slavery into the Western territories threatened to tear the nation apart. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 destroyed the tenuous balance struck 34 years before between “free States” and “slave States” in the Missouri Compromise. Under the banner of “popular sovereignty,” pro- and antislavery factions waged violent conflict for control of what came to be known as “bleeding Kansas” before that territory was admitted to the Union. With Congress sharply divided, reflecting the divisions in the nation, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of hearing the case of a fugitive slave suing for his freedom. Intended to be the definitive ruling that would settle the controversy threatening the Union for good, the case instead produced a divisive decision that pushed the nation one step closer toward the precipice of civil war.

John Marshall, in his time the single most influential advocate for strong National Government, had died in 1835. President Andrew Jackson appointed Roger B. Taney (pronounced Tawney). During his tenure as Chief Justice, Taney upheld strong national power, but with some modifications. Taney endorsed what is known as “dual sovereignty,” which implies that State and federal governments are “foreign” to each other; each is sovereign in its own right. By 1857, Taney presided over a Court that had expanded to nine justices and was divided—four Northerners and five Southerners, including Taney, sat on the bench.

Circumstances of the Case

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.

Constitutional Issues

Did a slave become free upon entering a free State? Could a slave—or a black person—actually be entitled to sue in federal courts? Was the transportation of slaves subject to federal regulation? Could the Federal Government deny a citizen the right to property (interstate transportation of slaves/property) without due process of law? Could an item of property (a slave) be taken from the owner without just compensation? And finally, was the Missouri Compromise a valid and constitutional action of the National Government? Could Congress prohibit slavery in a territory or delegate that power to a territory's legislature?

Arguments

For Dred Scott: When a person enters a free State or territory, the free status overrides the previous condition of servitude. Since slavery was forbidden in the free States and territories by federal and State laws, Dred Scott became free when he entered Illinois and Wisconsin.

For Sandford: To deprive a person of property (in this case, Dred Scott) without due process or just compensation violated the 5th Amendment, which states that “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Dred Scott was still a slave and no master's property rights could be limited or taken away by a State or federal law.

Decision and Rationale

The Court decided 7-2 in favor of the slave owner. Every justice submitted an individual opinion justifying his position, with Chief Justice Taney's being the most influential.

According to Taney, African Americans, be they slave or free, were not citizens. As a slave, moreover, Scott was property and had no right to bring suit in federal courts. “In regard to the issue of Scott's becoming free when he moved to the free State of Illinois,” Taney wrote, “the laws of the State in which the petitioner was currently resident, namely the slave State of Missouri, should apply.”

Of far more serious consequence, the Court also struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional, because it deprived property owners (slave owners) of the right to take their property anywhere in the United States, thus “depriving them of life, liberty and property under the 5th Amendment.” Any line, or law, that limited the right of slave owners to utilize their property was unconstitutional. Taney then ruled that the Congress could not extend to any territorial governments powers that it did not possess (in this case, the power to limit slavery). By declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, Taney not only destroyed one of the delicate compromises that had kept the union together for nearly four decades but also rejected the principle of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty, which held that territories could decide whether or not to allow slavery for themselves, had been strongly advocated by Stephen Douglas as the solution to the controversies in the federal territories that dominated the 1850s. This disallowance of popular sovereignty contributed to the national disorder over the spread of slavery.

The Dred Scott decision unleashed a storm of protest against the Court and the administration of President Buchanan, which supported the decision. The justices' plans to make a definitive ruling that would settle the controversy over slavery backfired as Republicans charged that a “Slave Power” conspiracy extended into the highest reaches of government. Violent struggles continued in the Kansas and Nebraska territories, where “free soil” and proslavery guerilla bands terrorized each other. A major landmark on the road to the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision was overturned with the adoption of the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution in 1865 and 1868. These amendments ended slavery and established firmly the citizenship of all persons, regardless of race, creed, or previous condition of servitude. As for Dred Scott, two months after the Supreme Court's decision, Emerson's widow sold Scott and his family to the Blow family, who freed them in May of 1857.

Source: ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Pearson Prentice Hall. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Information Please®, ©2005 Pearson Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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