Guest Essayist: Jeffrey Reed, former Constitutional Law Professor, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky

On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling that would forever tarnish its reputation and that would help ignite the fires that led to the Civil War. That decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), held that African-Americans were not United States citizens and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in territories acquired after the creation of the United States.

The facts leading to the decision are a bit convoluted, but necessary to understand the case. Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia. When he was about 25 years old, his owner took him to Missouri, where he was purchased by Dr. John Emerson. Emerson, a U.S. Army Surgeon, took him to Illinois, a free state, which had prohibited slavery in its constitution. Emerson moved with Scott to Fort Snelling, located in the Wisconsin territory (which would later become the state of Minnesota). Slavery in the territory was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise.

The 1820 Missouri Compromise primarily regulated slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of a certain latitudinal line, except in Missouri. The law attempted to balance the number of free and slave states.

In 1837, the Army ordered Emerson to a post south of St. Louis, Missouri. He left Scott and his wife, at Fort Snelling, where he leased their services, effectively bringing slavery into a free state in violation of the compromise.

The Army reassigned Emerson to a fort in Louisiana, where he sent for Scott and his wife. After Emerson was re-assigned to Fort Snelling, Scott and his wife returned, again in violation of federal law. After Emerson died, his wife inherited the Scotts, whom she leased out as slaves. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his freedom, but Emerson’s widow refused, which led to a lawsuit by Scott.

Scott sued the widow Emerson in Missouri court, claiming that his mere presence and residence in a free territory made him free. The suit was dismissed because Scott failed to prove that he was a slave belonging to the widow Emerson. After gaining a new trial, the court found in favor of Scott. The widow Emerson appealed. The Missouri Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Scotts were slaves who should have sued for freedom while living in a free state.

Scott then sued his current owner, John Sanford, in federal court. The trial judge directed the jury to rely on Missouri law. Since the Missouri Supreme Court had held that Scott was a slave, the jury found in favor of Sanford.

Scott appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The court had several issues to decide. The first few dealt with whether the federal court had jurisdiction to hear the case. Scott claimed it had diversity jurisdiction because a citizen of one state was suing the citizen of another state. The court held that Scott could not be a citizen, because he was a descendent of an imported African slave. According to Justice Taney, the authors of the Constitution viewed blacks as inferior, unfit to associate with the white race, with no rights “which the white man was bound to respect.”

The last issue was whether Scott’s residency in modern day Minnesota made him a free man. The court held that Scott and his family were not free, but under the laws of Missouri, were the property of the defendant. The federal court had no jurisdiction because under Missouri law, Scott was a slave, not a citizen. Because the federal court had no jurisdiction, the Missouri decision applied.

Despite ruling that it lacked jurisdiction, the court went on to hold that Congress did not have the power to enact the Missouri Compromise. The Court said that Congress’s power to acquire territories and create governments was limited to the Northwest Territory, not the Louisiana territory, which was acquired after the Constitution was adopted. Taney cited Article IV, Section 3 (“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States”) and the clause, “…and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.” Taney argued that the language protected permanent states. The Fifth Amendment barred any law that would deprive a slaveholder of his property, in this case slaves, upon moving into a free territory.

Republicans, and justices Curtis and McLean, argued that the last part of the ruling was dicta (gratuitous language) since the court had held that it lacked jurisdiction to decide the case.

The decision’s effects were immediate. It triggered the Panic of 1857, because of uncertainty about whether the West would suddenly become a salve territory or like Kansas, which was engulfed in bloodshed over the slavery issue. Railroads and banks collapsed as well.

Although Congress had repealed the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, permitting each newly admitted state south of the 40th parallel to decide the slavery issue, the Scott decision seemed to permit the expansion of slavery into the territories.

In effect, the Dred Scott case pushed the nation into the Civil War. The decision supported the Southern view that slaveholders had a right to bring slaves into the territories, regardless of territorial laws. If slavery expanded into the territories, Northerners would lose power, since new states would be admitted as slave states. Since slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, slave states would have more representation in Congress.

Ironically, Taney saw the decision as a compromise that would permanently settle the slavery issue. Instead, the Dred Scott decision strengthened the North’s opposition to slavery, divided the Democratic Party, encouraged Southern secessionists, and strengthened the Republican Party.

A private citizen accomplished for Scott what the laws of the nation could not do. The sons of Scott’s first owner purchased freedom for him and his family. In his remaining years, Scott worked in a hotel in St. Louis, where he was considered a local celebrity.

Read Dred Scott v. Sanford here:

Jeffrey Reed, a professional orchestra conductor, holds a degree from the Louis B. Brandeis School of Law. Before beginning his music career, he practiced law and  taught constitutional law at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he resides.


1 reply
  1. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    I just had a light bulb go on here. When a slave owner brings a slave into a free territory, the slave is technically not a fugitive slave. Fugitive slave laws therefore should not have applied.


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