The Dred Scott Decision


There have been several cases in the history of the Supreme 
Court that have had a powerful impact on both the highest court of the 
land and the history of the United States. The Dred Scott decision can 
definitely be included in this category of monumental cases that 
changed the course of American history. Until this decision the 
Supreme Court had a flawless reputation. Its prestige and credibility 
were beyond reproach. This high regard for the Supreme Court made 
people on both sides of the slavery issue turn to it in the hope that 
what could not be resolved in the political world could be solved in 
the legal world by the highest court of the land. But this was really 
expecting too much of judicial power. The major error associated with 
this case was the misguided belief that a flaming political 
problem,slavery, could become manageable by calling it a legal problem 
and handing it over to the courts to resolve.

 In the Dred Scott case the decision was based on "expediency 
not principle." The big problem was trying to use judicial power to 
settle a major political problem. Although the Dred Scott decision may 
have been the result of a trial , in reality it was a case of the 
court battling with the complex issue of slavery, especially in the 
territories, in the mid l800's.

 In order to tell the story of a slave you have to tell the 
story of his master. The slave does not have an identity or history of 
his own. In Virginia, Peter Blow and his family had many slaves. Among 
these slaves was a young man named Sam, or as we know him today, Dred 
Scott. Peter Blow decided to move his estate to Alabama and then to 
the thriving port city of St. Louis. During these years, Dred
married and had a child. After the death of the Blows, Dred was sold 
to Dr. Emerson, an army surgeon. He and Scott traveled through 
Illinois and Minnesota. When Dr. Emerson died , Dred Scott was sent 
back to St. Louis to Mrs. Emerson. This was when Scott argued that 
under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, the fact that he and Dr. 
Emerson lived in Illinois and Minnesota made him a free man. The 
Missouri Compromise did not allow slavery in whatever territory that 
remained from the Louisiana Purchase north of a specific line, 36o 30' 
of north latitude.

 At this time the issue of slavery was a major concern. The 
Mexican War provided the United States with a lot of new territory,
and the question of the future of slavery in the territories was on 
everyones mind. The people of the North who were against slavery 
wanted Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories.

 John C. Calhoun, the spokesman for the South, said that 
Congress did not have the right to prohibit slavery in the 
territories. The Southern attempt to extend the line of the Missouri 
Compromise failed, so their only hope was Calhoun's constitutional
criticism of Congress' attempt to prohibit slavery in the territories. 
This was why they plunged themselves completely behind Calhoun's 
ideas. Calhoun argued that the territories were "the common property 
of the states of this Union. They are called the' territories of the 
United States,' and what are the ' United States' but the States 
united? Sir, these territories are the property of the States united; 
held jointly for their common use." This statement beautifully 
illustrates how extreme the Southern view of state sovereignty was. It 
was the Southern belief that the states should have the right to 
declare slavery in their states and it is beyond congressional power 
to prohibit slavery.

 Southerners believed that their very existence depended on an 
equal amount of slave and free states. They realized that if Congress 
prohibited slavery in the territories there would be no more equality 
of slave states and free states. 

 The Northern view was based upon the Wilmot Proviso which 
expressed the view that Congress had not only the right but also the 
responsibility to prohibit slavery. The Northern view was also based 
upon the very constitution itself which said that Congress has the 
power to "make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the 
Territory... belonging to the United States."

 Calhoun presented his ideas to Congress, telling them that the 
territories belong to the states and since Congress is merely the
agent of the states, it has no right to prohibit slavery. It all came 
down to whether or not you believe that state's rights are more
important than federal rights or vice versa. Many debates, including 
the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, focused on this hot issue.

 With much debate, Congress was hopelessly deadlocked. The 
Senate would not approve any provision or law which denied the right 
of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories. The House did not 
approve any package which included the right of Congress to prohibit 
slavery in the territories. The situation was completely inflexible . 
It appeared as though nothing would change the situation in 
Congress.It was decided by the South and agreed upon by the North that 
there was but one solution to the mess that the Union had gotten 
itself into: getting the judiciary involved.

 At that time the Supreme Court seemed to be incapable of doing 
anything wrong. With the supreme leadership ability of John Marshall 
and now Roger Taney, all problems seemed to be solved, and solved 
correctly. Southerners saw that nothing was happening to change the 
fact that Congress could prohibit slavery in the territories. After a 
while everyone seemed to feel that the judicial system was their only 
hope for a solution. Even the loud Senator from Illinois, by the name 
of Abraham Lincoln said:"The Supreme Court of the United States is the 
tribunal to decide such questions and we will submit to its decision."

 So there it is. It is all up to the courts, through the trials 
of a few cases, to decide upon the complex and heavily debated issue
of slavery. This is why the case of Dred Scott played such an 
important role in American history.

 In the first trial in l846, the St. Louis Circuit Court denied 
Dred's plea for freedom. However, his lawyer set up a retrial in 1850.
Scott claimed freedom because of his stay in Minnesota and llinois. 
After Dr. Emerson died, Scott became the property of Mrs. Emerson. 
When she remarried she gave Dred to her brother, Sanford , who 
regarded Dred as his property. Sanford said that even though Dred 
Scott had been in territories that prohibited slavery, his voluntary 
return to St. Louis, a slave bearing state, made him a slave once 
again. In the retrial Scott prevailed, but two years later, in l852, 
Scott lost in the Missouri Supreme Court. At this point the case began 
to attract a lot of public attention.

 The case became a Federal case when Scott claimed that he was 
a citizen of Missouri and that Sanford, a citizen of New York, had 
assaulted him. Sanford replied with a plea of abatement on the grounds 
that Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri because his ancestors 
came to the United States as slaves. Since Dred is not a citizen, he 
cannot file a claim in a federal court. The plea of abatement was
denied because the judge claimed that Scott was a citizen. After the 
trial the judge secretly informed the jury to vote against Scott; this 
is what the jury did.

 Dred Scott's lawyers filed a Writ of Error to the United 
States Supreme Court. With a very heavy docket, the Supreme Court
planned to hear the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case two years later, in 
the year of l856. Legal experts joined both sides of the case as the 
attention of the entire country became focused on this trial. The fact 
that Sanford had entered a plea of abatement claiming that blacks were 
not citizens, gave the entire case an added dimension of importance. 
Not only was it involved with the vital question of Congress' right to 
prohibit slavery in the territories, it called into question the very 
right of Negroes to be citizens . What is the use of Congress 
prohibiting slavery in the territories if those freed from slavery 
could not become citizens? The whole country realized that this was 
the case they had all been waiting for. This was the case that would 
make the ultimate decision.

 It would be very hard for Dred Scott to win this case. The 
court was Southern and pro slavery. There were nine justices. Taney, 
the Chief Justice, and four others were from the South. Two of the 
Northern judges were for state rights and one was pro slavery. Only 
one judge was against slavery.

 After hearing the case, the judges wanted to rule in favor of 
Sanford. This is an example of using the law to get the results that
you want. The judges wanted to use the law to promote the view of the 
United States that they considered most desirable. They could not 
decide on what legal principle their decision should be based. Some 
judges wanted to override Scott's status as a citizen. Justice Nelson 
said that since this case was so controversial, and the election of 
l856 was so controversial, they should wait until after the election 
to hear new arguments. This request was granted.

 More arguments were heard and the judges decided upon a 
verdict. The decision, which Justice Taney presented, had three main 
points: Negroes, even those who were not slaves, could not be citizens 
of the United States, according to the meaning of the Constitution. 
Scott's claim that he had become a free man because he lived in a 
territory from which slavery had been prohibited as a result of the 
Missouri Compromise, was not valid. This was because the Missouri 
Compromise which excluded slavery went beyond the constitutional power 
of Congress. Finally, Scott was not free because he had lived in 
Illinois. Once he returned to Missouri he was obligated to obey the 
laws of Missouri and was bound by the position he held in that state.

 In l86l-1862, two very important things happened: Abraham 
Lincoln was elected president and Congress prohibited slavery in the 
territories without judicial restraint. These two things helped the 
North gain power. People were very upset with the Dred Scott ruling, 
even after his death. Other cases received similar verdicts and were 
not judged by the merits of the individual cases, but by the issue of 
slavery. People were not getting fair trials even though they were 
insured fair trials by the Constitution of the United States of 

 Calhoun continued to fight and remained a defender of slavery. 
He based his position on the right of states to "regulate their own 
domestic institutions." There was still much debate and the issue was 
nowhere close to being solved. The hope of having it solved by the 
Supreme Court proved to be an illusion. The mood of the country was 
angry. Compromise was out of the question.

 The Dred Scott case made the common folk aware of slavery and 
its horrors. It added much more depth to the newly formed Free Soil 
and Republican Parties. But it was also used as a weapon for the 
Democrats. Every time the issue of judiciary involvement came up, they 
just pointed to the Dred Scott case. Republicans said it was just 
proof of Southern unfairness, and a good reason to fight against them.
The South had extremists who stuck to their belief in their absolute 
sovereignty. This further isolated and separated the South from the 
rest of the country.

 The Dred Scott case bears directly on the Civil War. It not 
only strengthened the Republican Party but it also angered them to
the point that they were ready to fight in a war. There was a war and 
the North prevailed. This war marked the end of slavery, but was one 
of the most traumatic events in the history of the United States.

 The Dred Scott decision was a major factor in dividing the 
nation beyond repair. It was the moving force for the Civil War that
followed it. The Supreme Court's consideration of the case represented 
the last chance for a peaceful and legal solution to the issue of 
slavery. All prior political solutions proposed by Congress proved 
futile. Having exhausted both political and legal means for a 
solution, the fanatics took over and the bloodshed of war became 


Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case, Its Significance in American 
Law and Politics New York: Oxford University Press, l978.

Hopkins, Vincent C. Dred Scott's Case New York: Atheneum, l967.

Kutler, Stanley,I. The Dred Scott Decision, Law or Politics? Boston: 
Houghton Mifflin, l967.

Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court New York: Oxford 
University Press, l993.


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