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What Happened in Dred Scott?

It is almost a universal statement, that, in the annals of the Supreme Court’s decisions from the signing of the Constitution to today, the worst decision ever handed down by the Court was Scott v. Sandford, more commonly known as the Dred Scott case.

The story of the case is well known. Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia in 1795. At age 23, he and his owner, Peter Blow, moved to Alabama. Twelve years later, they resettled to Missouri. So far in this story there is no controversy; Virginia, Alabama, and Missouri were all slave states. However, in Missouri, Blow sold Scott to an army doctor named John Emerson. Dr. Emerson moved himself and Scott to Illinois, which was a free state. After Emerson’s death, his family inherited Scott as a slave. Scott tried to buy his and his wife’s freedom, but Emerson’s family refused to free them. As a result, Scott sued for his freedom.

Scott relied on the fact that his owners had moved to free soil in his suit. Scott argued that because slavery was illegal in Illinois, the moment he stepped in the state, he became a free man. This logic was the logic of the underground railroad and other abolition movements as they freed slaves by moving them to free soil. This logic, freeing by transportation, was the very thing the Court questioned in its decision. While the general outcome of the decision is well known, it is important to do a deep dive into the ruling to see just how destructive this case was to abolition and African Americans.

In the famed Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court determined the answer to two separate, but related, legal questions: “Had the Circuit Court of the United States jurisdiction to hear and determine the case between these parties?” and “If it had jurisdiction, is the judgment it has given erroneous or not?” The judgement being the ruling of the Circuit Court declaring Dred Scott a slave. Ultimately, the Supreme Court, in a decision led by then Chief Justice Taney, decided against Dred Scott.

In order to answer the first question, the Chief Justice defined specifically who has legal standing in United States courts. He argued that the federal government is unusual in that the Constitution actively limits its powers and scope. Furthermore, he recalled Article III of the Constitution, which extends judicial power only to controversies involving United States citizens. Under these circumstances, the Courts can only hear cases brought by United States citizens or citizens of foreign countries. As such, the Courts are not allowed to hear – let alone rule on – cases over which they do not have jurisdiction. Following this conclusion, the Chief Justice had to decide whether Dred Scott was a citizen of the United States. In his ruling, the Chief Justice determined that Dred Scott was not a citizen and furthermore, no person of African descent, either free or slave, could ever become a citizen nor have a citizen’s rights. Citing the language of the Declaration of Independence as well as a change in language between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, specifically, that under the Articles of Confederation “free inhabitants” are “entitled to all the privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several States,” but no such language exists in the Constitution. Therefore, Dred Scott was not a citizen, did not have the right to sue in a United States court or any other United States rights, and did not have the ability to ever become a citizen or be granted those rights.

Despite the fact that the Chief Justice argued that Dred Scott had no legal standing in the Court, he continued by answering the second question. In order to determine whether the Court should grant freedom to Dred Scott, the Chief Justice gave a brief history of the legality of slavery in the territories from the Louisiana Purchase. He recalled that Congress, in the Compromise of 1820, under the ability to regulate territories granted by the Constitution in Article IV, declared that slavery would not exist in the territories acquired from France north of the southern border of Missouri, except for in the territory of Missouri. This is relevant to the case, as Dred Scott had argued that since he had been moved to a territory that outlawed slavery he had gained his freedom. The Chief Justice took issue with Scott’s claim and the facts on which he rests them. The Chief Justice argued that Article IV powers regarding territories only apply to territories that the United States received from England at the end of the Revolutionary War. As such, Congress could not lay down laws in territories that exceed its enumerated powers. Because Congress could not regulate people’s property, it could not outlaw slavery. In addition, the Chief Justice found that the Compromise of 1820 exceed Congress’s constitutional powers and declared it unconstitutional. The Chief Justice also found that a slave moved to a free territory is not free because when a slaveholding citizen moves from a slave state to a free territory they retain all rights, privileges, and property guaranteed in their previous state lest their rights as a United States citizen be violated.

Under the leadership of Chief Justice Taney, the United States Supreme Court declared that Americans of African descent were not and could not be considered citizens, ruled the Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, and found that slaves were not emancipated even on free soil. Although the language is rough and the substance abhorrent, I encourage you to read through the actual text to get a sense of how Taney and the Court viewed slavery.

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