Dred Scott v. Sandford
The Supreme Court of the United States handed down a momentous decision (voting 7-2) about rights and freedoms in 1857, before the country as we know it was fully formed. That case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, commonly known as the Dred Scott Decision, became a standard for constitutional rights and a catalyst for further definition of individual freedoms. It was also the second time that the Court decided an act of Congress was unconstitutional.
Dred Scott was born into slavery in Alabama but was sold to a man who traveled and lived in various states and territories in the U.S., for a time living in Illinois (a free state). He married and his wife gave birth to a baby in a slavery-free area. With the help of benefactors, Scott sued for his freedom, claiming that living in a slavery-free state should in fact make him a free man. His case also argued that his daughter should be free because she was born in a slavery-free area.
The Court’s decision said that negro, or colored, individuals could not be American citizens, and further, that the federal government could not regulate slavery in unincorporated territories. Some believe this decision contributed to the start of the Civil War.
At the time of the case, there were few if any incorporated states west of the Mississippi River as the land had just been acquired during the Louisiana Purchase and there wasn’t sufficient population in the territories to qualify them for statehood. But the federal government was anticipating some conflict or disagreement over whether slavery should be allowed in those future states, so it enacted the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to stem the growth of slavery, setting the Mason-Dixon Line as the boundary between North (free states) and South (slave-owning states).
In the course of events, Scott’s ownership was transferred among several individuals and his representation before courts was handled by a variety of attorneys with interconnecting relationships. State court proceedings in Missouri were delayed by an epidemic. The Missouri Supreme Court decided against Dred Scott, writing in its decision that he should have sued for his freedom while he was resident of a free state rather than after settling in Missouri. And the case was further complicated by the machinations of President-elect James Buchanan, who discussed it with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, prior to the court’s decision, and announced in his inaugural address that the court would settle the simmering slavery issue in its forthcoming Dred Scott decision.
Historians argue that the Dred Scott Decision was the worst ever handed down by the Supreme Court. Its ramifications were essentially undone by later legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1866, which addressed the question of citizenship and ensured equal protection under the law.