Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857 case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that U.S. territories could not prohibit slavery, and that neither free nor enslaved blacks had constitutional rights.

Scott's Case

Born a slave in Virginia around 1795, Dred Scott's original name was Sam Blow. Peter Blow, his owner, moved him first to Alabama in 1818, then to St. Louis in 1830. After Blow died, his son sold Sam to John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, who used him as a valet. In 1834, Emerson was transferred to Fort Armstrong, Illinois, where slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The ordinance had allowed then-territories in the West to become states with the condition that they forbid slavery. Like many other slave-owning army officers, Emerson did not believe his postings in free states subjected him to antislavery laws, so he brought Sam with him.

Two years later, Emerson was transferred to Fort Snelling, in what is now Minnesota but was then part of the Wisconsin Territory. Slavery in the territory was banned by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had ended a long-standing debate over whether the lands of the Louisiana Purchase should enter the Union as slave or free states. Congress decided that with the exception of Missouri, slavery would be prohibited in the territories north of latitude 36º 30'.

At Fort Snelling, Sam married Harriet, the slave of another army officer, and in 1838 the couple returned with Emerson to St. Louis. At some point in these moves, Sam took the name Dred Scott, which may have been a joke contrasting his tiny stature with that of the corpulent General Winfield "Great" Scott. In 1843, Emerson died and left his property — including slaves — in trust to his wife. In 1846, with the help of friends, Scott sued Mrs. Emerson in local court for his family's freedom. His lawyers argued that the Scotts' stay in free territory had emancipated them, citing several precedents in Missouri case law, the most important of which was Rachael v. Walker (1837). The Scotts lost the case, moved for the verdict to be set aside, and at a new trial in 1850 won their freedom.

Mrs. Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which issued a 2 to 1 decision in 1852 returning the Scotts to slavery. The court stated that earlier court precedents, including its own, were made under circumstances that were no longer valid. Noting the rise of abolitionism in the country, the court argued that the antislavery movement threatened the "overthrow and destruction of our government." Thus slave states could not be expected to uphold the law of free states, and a slave, whether on free soil or not, was still a slave. The case was a forceful rejection of the Missouri Compromise and probably would have been heard by the U.S. Supreme Court had Scott appealed directly. Instead, Scott's lawyers counseled another course.

In the Federal Courts

While the state court case was being processed, Mrs. Emerson's brother, John Sanford of New York, had taken over the affairs of her estate. In 1853, Scott filed suit against Sanford, this time in federal court. Scott argued that because he and Sanford lived in different states, their case required a federal trial. Sanford argued that Scott was still a slave and even if he were free, a black descendant of slaves was not entitled to bring suit. The federal court in St. Louis rejected Sanford's argument that free blacks could not bring suit, but concluded that Scott was still a slave. Scott appealed, and in 1856 the U.S. Supreme Court heard his case.

Not wanting to affect the presidential elections of 1856, the high court postponed its ruling in Scott v. Sanford until two days after President James Buchanan's inauguration. On March 6, 1857, a mostly southern 7 to 2 majority found Scott was still a slave. The court therefore needed only to agree with the lower court, remand parts of the decision that needed clarification, and be done with the case. However, several recent events conspired to put pressure on the court to make additional rulings that would settle the question of slavery.

Chief among these events was Congress's 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which placed severe penalties on Northerners who helped runaway slaves. Northern states responded by enacting laws to obstruct Southerners trying to capture fugitives. In 1854 Congress passed the even more controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act largely overturned the Missouri Compromise by letting territories choose or reject slavery instead of leaving that decision to the federal government. The territories' right to choose, known as popular sovereignty, prompted intense conflicts in the territories and earned Kansas the label "Bleeding Kansas." Slavery opponents in the Democratic, Whig, and Free Soil parties responded to the tension by creating the Republican Party in 1854. When Republicans proclaimed their aim to abolish slavery in the territories, conservative Democrats countered by calling for a slave code in the territories.

Against this backdrop, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney decided to use Scott v. Sandford to address the constitutionality of slavery. Writing for the court, he gave an extremely narrow interpretation of the Constitution's view of blacks. Taney began by arguing that the Constitution did not allow Congress to regulate slavery — or anything else — in the territories. Rather, the Constitution's statements about regulating territories applied only to those territories in the states's possession in 1789, when the Constitution was ratified. Since the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Congress had no power to regulate Purchase territories until they became states. The ruling effectively made the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional — only the second time the Supreme Court had declared a statute of Congress unconstitutional. (The first was Marbury v. Madison in 1803.) Taney's ruling on the Missouri Compromise was especially unnecessary since the Kansas-Nebraska Act superseded the compromise.

Taney also interpreted the Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the taking of property without due process of law, to apply to slaves. Taney argued that since slaves were property, they could not be taken from their owners, regardless of whether they had crossed into a free state or territory. He further asserted the Constitution never intended blacks — even free blacks in free states — to be citizens. Therefore, even if Scott were free, he was not entitled to bring a suit in a federal court. Taney based this decision largely on a clause of the Constitution that he interpreted as denying blacks some of the rights and duties of citizenship, such as serving in militias. In perhaps the best-known sentence of his opinion, Taney characterized blacks 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 that the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.

Justices Benjamin R. Curtis and John McLean dissented. They cited accounts showing that many blacks were citizens both before and after the ratification of the Constitution, and they argued the authors of the Constitution fully intended its protections to apply to them. Therefore, they said, Scott had the right to sue. They also argued the Constitution intended Congress to regulate all U.S. territories at all times, not just territories controlled by the states in 1789. Finally, since a law banning slavery freed any slave who entered the law's jurisdiction, Scott and his family were freed by virtue of their stay on free soil and could not be returned to slavery after returning to a slave state.


The ruling, one of the most infamous in the court's history, horrified overlapping groups of Northerners, abolitionists, and Republicans. Democrats hoped that by declaring free soil in the territories unconstitutional, Scott v. Sandford would kill the Republican Party. Instead, the ruling stimulated rapid growth in the party and made abolitionism, which had struggled for respectability, a more popular stance. Even Northerners who did not care about slavery in the territories worried that Scott v. Sandford could be used to legalize slavery in the North.

In the presidential election of 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln used such arguments repeatedly against Democratic candidate Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas, a leading proponent of popular sovereignty, derided Lincoln's charges. In an argument that became known as the Freeport Doctrine, Douglas said that territories could nullify the court's ruling by simply refusing to pass laws that would protect property in slaves. The Freeport Doctrine angered Southerners and provoked a split in the Democratic Party that guaranteed the presidency for Lincoln. Lincoln's victory was the first election in which a U.S. president was elected without a majority of votes. The Civil War was not long in coming.

During the war, the Union government acted as though the court had never ruled on Scott v. Sandford. Congress abolished slavery in all federal territories in June 1862, and later that year Lincoln's attorney general issued an opinion that free black men born in the United States were citizens. In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was ratified. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared all persons born or naturalized in the United States to be citizens, was ratified; the amendment was intended as a direct refutation of Scott v. Sandford.

Soon after the Supreme Court issued its decision, Dred Scott and his family were sold to a son of Peter Blow, Scott's original owner, who freed them instantly. Scott did not live long enough to see the many changes his case brought about. In September 1858 he died of tuberculosis in St. Louis.[1]


[1]"Dred Scott v. Sanford," Microsoft® Encarta® Africana. ©&(p) 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.