This Day in the Law
March 6

Supreme Court Decides Slaves Are Not Citizens in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

On March 6, 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), that slaves were not citizens under the United States Constitution. Dred Scott v. Sandford is considered by many legal scholars to be one of the worst decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history.

Dred Scott was born into slavery in the late 1790s. In 1830, his owners transported him to Missouri. In 1832, John Emerson purchased Scott and took him to places such as Illinois, a free state, and the Wisconsin Territory (present-day Minnesota), which also prohibited slavery based on the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Emerson also let Scott get married, which was generally not allowed by slaves to do because they could not enter into legal contracts.

Scott failed to raise enough money to pay for his and his family’s freedom. So, Scott sued Emerson for his freedom based on the fact that Scott had lived in the free state of Illinois and free federal territory of Wisconsin. Scott’s case made it all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court where he lost. But Scott didn’t quit there.

Scott filed another lawsuit in federal court for his freedom. In Scott’s federal lawsuit, he sued the defendant, John Sanford, who took ownership of Scott after Emerson died and gave Scott to Sanford. (NOTE: In Scott vs. Sandford, the defendant’s last name was actually "Sanford." However, it appears that a clerk misspelled the name and the court never corrected the error.) Scott was able to file his federal lawsuit based on diversity jurisdiction because Sanford was a resident of New York and Scott was a resident of a different state. Scott’s case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the opinion of the Court. Taney explained that slaves were not citizens of the United States and were not entitled to any protections from the federal government. Taney reasoned that the framers of the Constitution did not intend to include blacks in the phrase "all men are created equal." Therefore, Taney held that slaves could not sue in court, were considered chattel (i.e. private property), and held that the federal government had no authority to ban slavery from Federal territories like the Wisconsin Territory. In effect, the Court’s decision overturned federal law that prohibited slavery in federal territories. Therefore, this decision became the second time that the Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional – the first being Marbury v. Madison which occurred 54 years earlier and established judicial review.

The sons of Scott’s first owner eventually purchased his freedom in May 1857 and the event made national news. Scott lived about another year and a half before he died of tuberculosis.

The renowned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, found hope in the Court’s decision because slavery now became a national issue. In effect, the decision moved the U.S. one step closer to Civil War.

Congress eventually overturned Dred Scott v. Sanford by passing and ratifying the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and declared all persons born in the United States as citizens.