Actions

Scott v. Sandford

From

Significance: The Supreme Court endorsed a substantive due process interpretation of the Fifth Amendment that prevented Congress from excluding slavery from the territories. It also held that a person of African ancestry could not be a citizen of the United States.


In the antebellum period, one of the burning political issues was whether slavery would be allowed to expand into the territories. Because the slave states were outnumbered in the House of Representatives, they wanted to keep a balance of power in the Senate, which would require that more slave states be added to the union. The new Republican Party, established in 1854, hoped to attack slavery by preventing its expansion. Dred Scott was a slave who had been taken from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and then to the western part of Wisconsin territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Scott could have claimed his freedom while on free soil, but for some unknown reason, he did not do so. After returning to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom. Although Missouri's supreme court had earlier accepted residence on free soil as grounds for a claim to freedom, in this instance, the court rejected Scott's claim. Because he was then under the control of John Sanford of New York, he sued Sanford (misspelled in the transcript) in federal court under a diversity jurisdiction. By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court decided against Scott. If this had been the Court's only ruling, the Dred Scott case would have been relatively unimportant. Speaking for the majority, however, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney concentrated on the property rights of the slave owner, as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. He stated that in prohibiting a citizen from taking his property to a territory, Congress had abridged property rights without due process of law. Thus, a major part of the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. In addition, Taney made a distinction between national and state citizenship. He did not deny that people from Africa could be citizens of the states, but he insisted that they could never become a part of “We the People” of the U.S. Constitution. Even if Scott had been free, therefore, he would not be a citizen entitled to sue in federal court. Two justices, Benjamin R. Curtis and John McLean, wrote forceful dissenting opinions. Although Taney had hoped that the Dred Scott decision would calm the political waters, it instead intensified the passionate debate between defenders and opponents of slavery. The overturning of the Missouri Compromise infuriated Abraham Lincoln and other Republicans who had advocated congressional action to prevent the expansion of slavery into the territories. By polarizing the nation, Dred Scott helped set the stage for southern secession. The citizenship and the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment were written in part to overturn Taney's opinions in the case.



Further Reading

  • Ehrlich, Walter. They Have No Rights: Dred Scott's Struggle for Freedom. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.
  • Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Finkelman, Paul. “Dred Scott v. Sandford”: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
  • Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.