Dred Scott v. Sandford

The Supreme Court case of Dred Scott versus Sanford is in retrospect one of the most controversial and criticized decisions in the history of the court. The essence of the case was in thenotion that Negroes had no rights which whites were required to respect, and were not citizens under the Constitution.

Dred Scott was a complex case whose origins went back years before the cases are finally decided that accord in 1856 term. Dred Scott had been owned by an army officer who moved around the country, taking Scott with him. He had for a time lived in Minnesota, where slavery was illegal under the Missouri Compromise. Scott was later inherited its after his owner's death by a member of the officer’s family, and wound up Missouri, where he was treated far more harshly than previously. Attempting to get out from under the control of his new master, Scott originally sought to bring a case of assault against his master for beating him, and eventually the case made its way up to the Supreme Court on the question of whether or not Scott was a slave.

Justice Roger Taney, who decided the case, was blunt in his description of the conditions in which slaves and their descendents were held at the time the Constitution was written. Although the meaning of the decision is ugly and inconsistent with everything we believe about the history of bracelet relations in this country. But it can be argued, that the decision itself did nothing more than layout and playing blunt unmistakable terms exactly what the Constitution had intended for the slaves and others of their race. That they were consigned to an inferior position socially, politically, economically, is one reason why abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison referred to the Constitution as “a pact with the devil.”

“It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or impolicy, of these laws. The decision of that question belonged to the political or law-making power; to those who formed the sovereignty and framed the Constitution. The duty of the court is, to interpret the instrument they have framed, with the best lights we can obtain on the subject, and to administer it as we find it, according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted.”
“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.”

The decision was long and complex and there were several opinions published in concurrence with main opinion issued by Justice Roger B. Taney. The entire case may be viewed at this link.

The sentiments expressed in the decision are discomfiting for sure. However, it is reasonable to interpret the case as being a restatement of what had already been laid down clearly at the time the Constitution was written. In other words, one might argue that the decision itself is merely a restatement of principles incorporated into that fundamental document in 1787.

Here you will find excerpts from the decision to indicate the courts chief findings on the Dred Scott case:

3. In the Circuit Courts of the United States, the record must show that the case is one in which, by the Constitution and laws of the United States, the court had jurisdiction and if this does not appear, and the court gives judgment either for plaintiff or defendant, it is error, and the judgment must be reversed by this court and the parties cannot by consent waive the objection to the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court.

4. A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a 'citizen' within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.

5. When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were not numbered among its 'people or citizens.' Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them. And not being 'citizens' within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States, and the Circuit Court has not jurisdiction in such a suit.

6. The only two clauses in the Constitution which point to this race, treat them as persons whom it was morally lawful to deal in as articles of property and to hold as slaves.

7. Since the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, no State can by any subsequent law make a foreigner or any other description of persons citizens of the United States, nor entitle them to the rights and privileges secured to citizens by that instrument.

8. A State, by its laws passed since the adoption of the Constitution, may put a foreigner or any other description of persons upon a footing with its own citizens, as to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by them within its dominion and by its laws. But that will not make him a citizen of the United States, nor entitle him to sue in its courts, nor to any of the privileges and immunities of a citizen in another State.

9. The change in public opinion and feeling in relation to the African race, which has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution, cannot change its construction and meaning, and it must be construed and administered now according to its true meaning and intention when it was formed and adopted.

10. The plaintiff having admitted, by his demurrer to the plea in abatement, that his ancestors were imported from Africa and sold as slaves, he is not a citizen of the State of Missouri according to the Constitution of the United States, and was not entitled to sue in that character in the Circuit Court.

11. This being the case, the judgment of the court below, in favor of the plaintiff on the plea in abatement, was erroneous.


1. The facts upon which the plaintiff relies, did not give him his freedom, and make him a citizen of Missouri.

3. The United States, under the present Constitution, cannot acquire territory to be held as a colony, to be governed at its will and pleasure. But it may acquire territory which, at the time, has not a population that fits it to become a State, and may govern it as a Territory until it has a population which, in the judgment of Congress, entitles it to be admitted as a State of the Union.

4. During the time it remains a Territory, Congress may legislate over it within the scope of its constitutional powers in relation to citizens of the United States and may establish a Territorial Government and the form of this local Government must be regulated by the discretion of Congress but with powers not exceeding those which Congress itself, by the Constitution, is authorized to exercise over citizens of the United States, in respect to their rights of persons or rights of property.


1. The territory thus acquired, is acquired by the people of the United States for their common and equal benefit, through their agent and trustee, the Federal Government. Congress can exercise no power over the rights of persons or property of a citizen in the Territory which is prohibited by the Constitution. The Government and the citizen, whenever the Territory is open to settlement, both enter it with their respective rights defined and limited by the Constitution.

2. Congress have no right to prohibit the citizens of any particular State or States from taking up their home there, while it permits citizens of other States to do so. Nor has it a right to give privileges to one class of citizens which it refuses to another. The territory is acquired for their equal and common benefit and if open to any, it must be open to all upon equal and the same terms.

3. Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property which the Constitution of the United States recognizes as property.

4. The Constitution of the United States recognizes slaves as property, and pledges the Federal Government to protect it. And Congress cannot exercise any more authority over property of that description than it may constitutionally exercise over property of any other kind.

5. The act of Congress, therefore, prohibiting a citizen of the United States from taking with him his slaves when he removes to the Territory in question to reside, is an exercise of authority over private property which is not warranted by the Constitution and the removal of the plaintiff, by his owner, to that Territory, gave him no title to freedom.


1. The plaintiff himself acquired no title to freedom by being taken, by his owner, to Rock Island, in Illinois, and brought back to Missouri. This court has heretofore decided that the status or condition of a person of African descent depended on the laws of the State in which he resided.

2. It has been settled by the decisions of the highest court in Missouri, that, by the laws of that State, a slave does not become entitled to his freedom, where the owner takes him to reside in a State where slavery is not permitted, and afterwards brings him back to Missouri.

Conclusion. It follows that it is apparent upon the record that the court below erred in its judgment on the plea in abatement, and also erred in giving judgment for the defendant, when the exception shows that the plaintiff was not a citizen of the United States. And as the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction, either in the case stated in the plea in abatement, or in the one stated in the exception, its judgment in favor of the defendant is erroneous, and must be reversed.

THIS case was brought up, by writ of error, from the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Missouri.

The entire Scott v. Sandford Decision at Cornell Law School

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