Dred Scott Desicion

Greg Blank

The Dred Scott decision was an important ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States that had a significant influence on the issue of slavery. The case was decided in 1857 and, in effect, declared that no black--free or slave--could claim United States citizenship. Slaves were viewed as property, and such had no individual right. Furthermore, the decision indicated that Congress could not prohibit slavery in United States territories. I believe that the decision was morally wrong and failed to recognize the rights of people to be free. In addition, the ruling had many political and social implications, aroused angry resentment in the North and led the nation a step closer to civil war. The decision was finally overridden after the Civil War with the introduction and passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment, adopted in 1868, extended citizenship to former slaves and gave them the benefit and protection of individual rights. (textbook, 295)


The Dred Scott the decision involved a slave owned by U.S. Army surgeon, John Emerson. Emerson lived in Missouri, a state that permitted slavery. In 1834, Scott went to live with Emerson in Illinois, a state that prohibited slavery. They later lived in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. In 1838, Scott returned to Missouri with Emerson. Emerson died in Missouri in 1843, and three years later, Scott sued the surgeon's widow for his freedom.


Scott based his suit on the argument that his former residence in a free state and a free territory--Illinois and Wisconsin--made him a free man. A state circuit court ruled in Scott's favor, but the Missouri Supreme Court later reversed the decision. Meanwhile, Scott had become legally regarded as the property of John F. A. Sanford of New York. Because Sanford did not live in Missouri, Scott's lawyers were able to transfer the case to a federal court. This court ruled against Scott, and his lawyers then took the case to the Supreme Court. By a majority of 7 to 2, the Supreme Court ruled that Scott could not bring a suit in a federal court. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, speaking for the majority, declared that Scott could not do so because blacks were not U.S. citizens.


The court could have simply dismissed the case after ruling on Scott's citizenship. But there was a growing national desire for a ruling on the constitutionality of such laws as the Missouri Compromise. Therefore, the court discussed this issue as part of its decision in the Dred Scott case. By a smaller majority, the court ruled that the Missouri Compromise, which had been repealed in 1854, was unconstitutional. Justice Taney argued that because slaves were property, Congress could not forbid slavery in the territories without violating a slaveowner's constitutional right to own property.


Dred Scott himself was sold shortly afterward. His new owner gave him his freedom two months after the Supreme Court decision. (Funk & Wagnall encyclopedia volume 8 1986)


The Dred Scott decisions was applauded by Southerns who believed they could now extend slavery to all the territories. In essence, it supported the views held by the South that slaves were property, not citizens who had individual rights. Thus they could be bought and sold in manner no different the other property. They were not protected by the constitutional garentee to individual freedom. However, in the north the reaction was quite different. The North was very unhappy and pledged to try to stop the spread of slavery. Indeed, Frederick Douglas said that the decision was wrong as it was "an attempt to blot out forever the hopes of all enslaved people".


The decision, supported by the South, helped enforce their way of life and their belief that slaves were property. They used slaves as cheap labor to work the fields. Slaves had no rights and were not given the respect of private family life or basic human rights. Politically, the decision further divided the North from the South. The South believed that state rights controlled their law, not federal rules. The North believed that a strong nation should have laws that control certain rights otherwise decided by states. The slaves, viewed as property in the South became a hotly debated subject, particularly as it offended the North?s sense of right and wrong.


To source, the decision may have been a product of our system