Leading up to the Dred Scott decision, a changing America was plagued with the issue of how to handle slavery, a backward and heinous practice, which Southern states at the time relied heavily upon. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 balanced the power between slave states and free states in America. Missouri was made a slave state, and Maine was made a free state. In addition, the act declared that all territories above the Mason-Dixon Line were free. 

Dred Scott was an enslaved person. His master was John Emerson, an army surgeon who complained of health problems at many of his posts, leading to multiple reassignments, which resulted in him living in Illinois and a free Wisconsin Territory. Emerson brought Scott with him, and eventually returned to their home of Missouri, where slavery was legal. Emerson died and Scott and his new wife sued Emerson’s widow, Irene, and her brother John Sanford, to be released from the shackles of slavery. Scott filed under the grounds that since he traveled with Emerson to free territory, he and his wife should be emancipated. Sanford argued that Scott’s return to Missouri maintained his slave status. Sanford also claimed that Scott did not have the right to sue since he wasn’t a citizen and therefore wasn’t protected by the Constitution. Later on, in Court proceedings, Sanford went on to claim that the ban on slavery included in the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional in itself. Many saw the Dred Scott case as a way to resolve the heated issue of slavery. The Court was asked to answer if Scott is able to sue as a citizen and if Congress could ban slavery through the Missouri Compromise. 


The Supreme Court decided that enslaved peoples were unable to become American citizens, and therefore, could not sue under the protections of the Constitution. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote for the Court in a now infamous opinion stating that former slaves and their descendants were never meant to be considered citizens in the Constitution. Taney even claimed that the Declaration of Independence purposefully left out those of the African race. 

Furthermore, the majority was quick to state the importance of the Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty, and property, including enslaved peoples as part of that property. Taney found the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, arguing that naturalization does not mean obtaining the rights and privileges of citizenship. Therefore, even if Dred Scott had resided in free lands for the rest of his life, the Court ordered that he would stay enslaved. The concurrences in Dred Scott argued that banning slavery was indeed unconstitutional and harmed a citizen’s right to property. Justice John Archibald Campbell wrote that the federal government had to acknowledge property established by the states, including slaves. 


The dissenting justices argued to uphold the Missouri Compromise, acknowledging the federal government’s power over the states. Justice John McLean’s dissent stressed the power of Congress to organize a temporary government, which can decide to rebuke slavery. Justice McLean made a strong statement by arguing that Congress can not only decide to ban slavery, but they are also constitutionally obligated to ban slavery, and that all free people of any color are citizens and should be treated as such. 

Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis’ dissent is regarded by many as a legal masterpiece. Unlike Taney’s argument, Curtis stated that the Constitution applies to all, not just the white race. However, Curtis had a more limited scope in banning slavery. While he agreed that Congress could decide to do so, he also stated that Blacks were citizens only if they were born in a free state. 


When the Court made its decision in 1857, Irene Sanford was remarried to an abolitionist congressman who was outraged by the idea of owning a slave, especially one of the most famous slaves in the world. Sanford’s new husband sold Scott and his wife back to Scott’s original owner, who freed Scott in 1857. Unfortunately, Scott did not get to live a long life of freedom and died only a year later in 1858 from tuberculosis. 

The decision in Dred Scott is seen by many as the worst decision in Supreme Court history, both morally and legally. Later, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote that the decision was a terrible “self-inflicted wound.” Many criticize Chief Justice Taney’s use of judicial action in a political issue like the Missouri Compromise and slavery. Taney is known for the disastrous decision he made in Dred Scott and is seen by many as a villain in history. After this case, Northern courts rejected the Dred Scott precedent in making legal decisions, while the South applauded the Court’s holding. 

Many legal scholars view the Dred Scott decision as a catalyst for the Civil War. The differences between the Northern and Southern states continued to grow until the South seceded. In 1862 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the Confederacy. After the North won the Civil War, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery. The Dred Scott decision was finally overturned in 1868 by the Fourteenth Amendment which granted citizenship regardless of race or past enslavement.

Think Further

  1. Did the Court’s majority decision in the Dred Scott case have bad legal reasoning or was the immorality in the decision just so egregious that it is viewed as the most poorly decided case in American history? 
  2. Race issues continue to permeate American society today. Many believe that decisions like Dred Scott prove that America was established upon racism. Do you agree with Justice Taney that the founders did not have people of color in mind when they wrote the Declaration of Independence? Does that matter? 
  3. Do you agree that Dred Scott was a catalyst for the Civil War? What do you think about other catalysts like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the election of Abraham Lincoln? Where do you think the Dred Scott decision stands among these other catalysts? 


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Learn More

  1. “Dred Scott Case” (February 10, 2020)
  2. Gillman, Howard. American Constitutionalism, Second Edition. Volume II Rights and Liberties. [Virtual Source Bookshelf]. 
  3. Gillman, Howard. American Constitutionalism, Second Edition. Volume I Structures of Government. [Virtual Source Bookshelf].
  4. Urofsky, Melvin I. “Dred Scott decision” Britannica