Historical The Dred Scott Decision: Slavery and the U.S. Supreme Court
In March of 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise – a federal statute that regulated slavery in several western territories of the country – in the infamous Dred Scott Decision, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).
The justices also addressed whether a former slave was considered a “citizen” of the United States and, therefore, entitled to file suit in federal court.
The Facts of the Case
In 1785, Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia. After being purchased by U.S. Army Surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, Scott lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri. After Emerson’s death, his wife refused to allow Scott to buy his freedom. Scott subsequently filed suit to gain his freedom and that of his wife and family, arguing that residing in free territories mandated their emancipation.
The Legal Background
Congress enacted the Missouri Compromise in 1820 as a means to address the legality of slavery as the country expanded west. At the time, Missouri sought to gain admission as a state, the country was comprised of an equal number of free and slave states. Under the compromise reached by Congress, slavery was banned in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ north, except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri.
The Court’s Decision
In a 7-2 decision, the Court dismissed Scott’s suit and invalidated the Missouri Compromise. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777-1864) authored the majority opinion. Of the nine opinions issued by the Court, Justice Taney’s expressed the most pro-slavery viewpoint. He wrote:
[T]he act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned is not warranted by the Constitution and is therefore void; and that neither Dred Scott himself, nor any of his family, were made free by being carried into this territory; even if they had been carried there by the owner with the intention of becoming a permanent resident.
Chief Justice Taney first held that Scott was not entitled to sue because, as an African American, he was not considered a citizen of the United States. He stated that blacks, either free or slave, had been “regarded as beings of an inferior order”, with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Justice Taney further wrote:
In the opinion of the Court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument….
With regard to the Missouri Compromise, Chief Justice Taney deemed it unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the seizure of property without due process of law.
Now…the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. The right to traffic in it, like an ordinary article of merchandise and property, was guaranteed to the citizens of the United States, in every state that might desire it, for twenty years. And the government in express terms is pledged to protect it in all future time if the slave escapes from his owner. This is done in plain words–too plain to be misunderstood. And no word can be found in the Constitution which gives Congress a greater power over slave property or which entitles property of that kind to less protection than property of any other description….
Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis and Justice John McLean dissented. They argued that the majority should not have reached the merits of the case — the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise — because they found Scott lacked standing. Accordingly, the Court should have dismissed the case at that point.
More importantly, the dissenters argued that the majority erred in finding that Scott was not a citizen. In their opinions, Justices Curtis and McLean both took issue with how Justice Taney characterized the intent of the Founding Fathers, noting that blacks were allowed to vote in several states at the time of the Constitution’s ratification. According to Justice McLean, the majority’s ruling was “more a matter of taste than of law.”
While the Supreme Court attempted to end the debate over the legality of slavery, it further ignited tensions between pro and anti-slavery factions. The Dred Scott decision, although ultimately overturned, remains one of the Court’s most infamous decisions, not only for condoning slavery but also for weakening the moral authority of the judiciary. Legal scholars overwhelmingly agree that it is the U.S. Supreme Court’s worst decision.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
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