Dred Scott v. Sandford

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Robert Brooke Taney hoped he would put the slavery question to bed when the Dred Scott case was decided on March 6, 1857.

Dred Scott was an enslaved African American man whose owners had taken him from Missouri to the territories of Illinois and Wisconsin. Missouri was a slave state, which meant that slavery was legal throughout the state. However, slavery was not legal in either Illinois or Wisconsin territory. Thus, when Scott was taken back over the Missouri border, he sued his owners because they had taken him into free territory and still held him as an enslaved person. He argued that once an enslaved person was taken over the state line into free United States territories where slavery was illegal, that slave, by law, was automatically free. The Missouri State Court ruled that Dred Scott was still enslaved; because of this, he sued in the United States Federal Court, which also ruled against him. His case would then move on to the United States Supreme Court. It is important to note that his master maintained the argument that no African American or descendant of a slave could be a citizen because of Article III of the Constitution.[1]

In March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court issued a seven to two decision that ruled against Dred Scott and his long-awaited freedom. Chief Justice Robert Taney was joined in the majority opinion by James M. Wayne, John Catron, Peter V. Daniel, Samuel Nelson, Robert C. Grier, and John A. Campbell. The dissenting opinions were John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis. “The majority held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore did not have standing to sue in federal court. Because the Court lacked jurisdiction, Taney dismissed the case on procedural grounds.”[2] It was in this case that Taney also held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. He also ruled that slaves were to be seen as property under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Fifth Amendment says that property cannot be confiscated by the federal government, and since Taney declared slaves to be property, Dred Scott had no case because he did not even have the right to sue his master.[3]

Robert Taney has gone down in history as an interesting figure. Born into a slave owning family, one might think he was always pro-slavery. Yet, as a young lawyer, he freed his slaves. He would also go on to argue, in the courtroom, that slavery was an immoral practice. He even went so far as to say that slavery was a “bolt on our national character.”[4] During his early times as a politician, Taney attempted to steer away from the issue of slavery. He insisted that The issue of slavery was a state issue and not a federal government issue.[5] This would all change in the 1850s when the country moved closer to a Civil War. Somehow, the same man that freed his slaves went on to support succession, opposed President Abraham Lincoln at every turn, and had passed down one of the toughest decisions regarding slavery.

In his Dred Scott decision, Robert Taney said that African Americans “had for more than a century before been regarded 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 which the white man was bound to respect.”[6] His decision denounced African Americans as being anywhere near equal to white men. He went so far as to say that “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.”[7] The Dred Scott case was Taney’s attempt to end the question of slavery once and for all, it did not work.

Dred Scott

[1] “Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies, Sixth Edition | Chemerinsky | Wolters Kluwer Legal Education,” 723–25, accessed December 18, 2020.
[2] “Dred Scott v. Sandford,” Oyez, accessed December 18, 2020, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/60us393.

[3] “The Road to Disunion : Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854: Volume I,” 323, accessed November 22, 2020, https://web-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook?sid=3fa83a1d-22c3-45cc-8a88-fdca26efb059%40sdc-v-sessmgr02&ppid=pp_121&vid=0&format=EB.
[4] Timothy S. Huebner, The Taney Court (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 3AD), 17–38, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Taney_Court/Ng5Zwo7VgFkC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Huebner,+Timothy+S.+(2003).+The+Taney+Court,+Justice+Rulings+and+Legacy.+Santa+Barbara,+CA:+ABC-Clio.+ISBN+1-57607-368-8.&pg=PR4&printsec=frontcover.
[5] James F. Simon, Lincoln, and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers (Simon and Schuster, 2006), 1–2.
[6] David Thomas Konig et al., The Dred Scott Case: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Race and Law (Athens, OH, UNITED STATES: Ohio University Press, 2014), 11, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=1756223.
[7] Konig et al., 11.

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