Dred Scott Case

Dred Scott Case, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856–57. It involved the then bitterly contested issue of the status of slavery in the federal territories. In 1834, Dred Scott, a black slave, personal servant to Dr. John Emerson, a U.S. army surgeon, was taken by his master from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, a free state, and thence to Fort Snelling (now in Minnesota) in Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise. There he married before returning with Dr. Emerson to Missouri in 1838. After Emerson's death, Scott sued (1846) Emerson's widow for freedom for himself and his family (he had two children) on the ground that residence in a free state and then in a free territory had ended his bondage. He won his suit before a lower court in St. Louis, but the Missouri supreme court reversed the decision (thus reversing its own precedents). Scott's lawyers then maneuvered the case into the federal courts. Since J. F. A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother, was the legal administrator of her property and a resident of New York, the federal court accepted jurisdiction for the case on the basis of diversity of state citizenship. After a federal district court decided against Scott, the case came on appeal to the Supreme Court. In Feb., 1857, the court decided in conference to avoid completely the question of the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise and to rule against Scott on the ground that under Missouri law as now interpreted by the supreme court of that state he remained a slave despite his previous residence in free territory. However, when it became known that two antislavery justices, John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis, planned to write dissenting opinions vigorously upholding the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise (which had, in fact, been voided by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854), the court's Southern members, constituting the majority, decided to consider the whole question of federal power over slavery in the territories. They decided in the case of Scott v. Sandford (the name was misspelled in the formal reports) that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories, and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the court's opinion that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Three of the justices also held that a black "whose ancestors were … sold as slaves" was not entitled to the rights of a federal citizen and therefore had no standing in court. The court's verdict further inflamed the sectional controversy between North and South and was roundly denounced by the growing antislavery group in the North.

See V. C. Hopkins, Dred Scott's Case (1951, repr. 1967); S. I. Kutler, ed., The Dred Scott Decision (1967); F. B. Latham, The Dred Scott Decision (1968).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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