1857 - The Dred Scott Decision

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On March 6 the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its decision in the case of Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford . Scott was a Missouri slave, and Sanford (whose last name was misspelled in court papers) was a New York businessman who had custody of some family property, including Scott. In 1846 Scott had sued for freedom on the grounds that he and his previous owner, an Army surgeon, had lived in the state of Illinois and the territory of Wisconsin for several years. Slavery was illegal in both places.

The case was decided in Scott’s favor in 1850, but two years later Missouri’s supreme court reversed the decision. If the matter had rested there, it would have caused little controversy. Since the suit’s filing, however, the Mexican War and its aftermath had brought slavery to the forefront of the national debate. Both sides wanted to turn Scott v. Sandford into a test of the federal government’s right to restrict slavery.

At first the Supreme Court tried to sidestep the complex issues by resorting to a Catch-22. Scott had filed his claim as a citizen of Missouri, but since he was a slave, he was not entitled to that status. The suit would not be valid unless Scott gained citizenship. In other words, to sue for freedom in federal court, he had to be free already. However, the two strongest antislavery justices declined to go along with this ruling, and when the others insisted on refuting them, a narrowly tailored evasion turned into a free-for-all.

The Court’s decision was as splintered as any in its history, with each justice writing his own opinion. Six of the nine agreed that a slave could not be a citizen. Three went on to say that even a freed slave could not be a citizen, while two dissented and the rest were silent on this question.

The decision of the Chief Justice, Roger Taney, which was considered that of the Court, went the furthest of all. It declared the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition of slavery in territories north of 36°30', enacted in 1820, to be unconstitutional, since it deprived slaveholders of their property rights. By preventing Congress from finessing the issue of slavery in the territories, the Dred Scott decision hardened positions pro and con and made a sectional conflict much tougher to avoid.

For all the upheaval it created, the decision made little difference to Scott. Since 1854 he been living in St. Louis as virtually a free man; his owner, Sanford’s sister (who was the Army surgeon’s widow), had married an antislavery activist. Scott was emancipated shortly after the decision and became something of a local celebrity. He did not enjoy his status for long, though, before dying of tuberculosis on September 17, 1858.

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