Dred Scott Case, the landmark case of the 1850s in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that African Americans were not U.S. citizens. The Court also determined that the portion of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that banned slavery in U.S. territories north and west of the state of Missouri was unconstitutional. Officially titled Scott v. Sandford, the decision intensified ongoing debates over slavery that further polarized the American North and South and eventually gave rise to the American Civil War in 1861.
In 1846 Dred Scott, a slave living in St. Louis, Missouri, sued to prove that he, his wife, Harriet, and their two daughters were legally entitled to their freedom. After being tried in Missouri state courts and in a federal circuit court, the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856. The following year, the Court rejected Scotts claim. Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney concluded that blacks, even when free, could never become citizens of the United States and thus did not have a right to sue in federal courts. Taney also declared that Congress lacked the power to prohibit slavery in federal territories, a ruling that invalidated the part of the Missouri Compromise that banned slavery in the western territories.
The Supreme Courts decision in the Dred Scott case resulted from a long debate over slavery in the territories of the American West. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had prohibited slavery in all of the American territories north and west of the Ohio River. This region, called the Northwest Territory, consisted of land now occupied by the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the eastern portion of Minnesota.
Scott then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court heard his case in the spring of 1856 but did not decide it that year. Instead, the Court ordered new arguments, to be conducted in December 1856, after the upcoming presidential election. Montgomery Blair represented Scott for free. U.S. Senator Henry S. Geyer of Missouri, and Reverdy Johnson, a Maryland politician and close friend of Chief Justice Taney, represented Scotts owner. In March 1857 the Court ruled in a 7-to-2 decision that Scott was still a slave and therefore not entitled to sue in court. For the first time in history, each of the nine justices on the Court wrote an opinion in the same case, explaining their various positions on the Courts decision.
The Dred Scott Decision
By Bob Moore, JNEM Historian