The Dred Scott Decision and Its Bitter Legacy

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia around 1800 and died a free man in Missouri in 1858. Most contemporary accounts describe his life and habits as typical for someone of his place and time. Yet along the way, he gave his name to what has become the most infamous Supreme Court decision in American history.

Portrait of Dred Scott  (Courtesy New-York Historical Society)
Scott’s freedom suit, 1846, (Courtesy Washington University Library)

The Dred Scott case began in St. Louis Circuit Court in 1846 when Scott and his wife Harriet, 28, filed separate freedom suits against their owner, Irene Emerson. In that era, freedom suits or legal actions claiming wrongful enslavement were quite rare but still possible under most state laws.

Dred Scott and Harriet Scott, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27

We really don’t know why Harriet and Dred Scott chose that moment to file for their freedom. They had lived in free states or territories while serving Mrs. Emerson's late husband, an army surgeon, but had never before asserted the "once free, always free" doctrine.

Detail from Dred Scott’s Signed Petition of 1846  (Courtesy Washington Universit

Yet for some reason, on April 6, 1846, Dred Scott, an illiterate slave, bravely made his mark on a petition designed to "establish his right to freedom" in an American court of law. This action began a legal odyssey that didn’t end until eleven years later in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Broadside protesting re-capture of fugitive slaves, 1854 (Gilder Lehrman Collect

When Dred Scott's case reached the Supreme Court in late 1854, the country was experiencing an unprecedented crisis over slavery. Battles over fugitive slaves and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had previously restricted the spread of slavery, now threatened to transform Scott's personal claims into a critical national test.

James Buchanan, Robert Grier and Roger Taney  (Courtesy Dickinson College)

Concerned by the crisis, the court delayed a decision until after the 1856 election. President-Elect James Buchanan then secretly discussed the deliberations with some of the justices. At his inauguration, Buchanan urged respect for the verdict "whatever this may be." Two days later, on March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney read the profoundly pro-slavery decision.

Chief Justice Taney  (Courtesy Dickinson College)

Even though all nine justices wrote separate opinions, Taney was generally acknowledged to have spoken for a 7-2 majority against Dred Scott. The Chief Justice made two major pronouncements: 1) Blacks, whether slaves or free, had never been U.S. citizens, and 2) Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories.

Report of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Opinio

Chief Justice Taney employed unusually blunt language and racist arguments to contend that by the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted, African Americans had been universally regarded as "an inferior order" that "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Benjamin Curtis and John McLean (Courtesy Dickinson College)

Dissenting justices Benjamin Curtis of Massachusetts and John McLean of Ohio vigorously disputed Taney’s version of American history. Despite the existence of slavery, Curtis wrote, "no argument can obscure, that in some of the original thirteen States, free colored persons … were citizens of those States."

Missouri Compromise (1820) (Courtesy the National Archives)

But the biggest surprise and gravest disagreement came over Taney's second pronouncement, that Congress had no power to prohibit territorial slavery. This opinion meant that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had been unconstitutional and suggested that the platform of the new Republican Party which urged the containment of slavery might be illegal.

The U.S. Constitution, (Article IV, Section 3)  (Courtesy the National Archives)

Once again, the dissenting justices contested Taney's interpretation of the Constitution and American history. They blasted his narrow view of the territories clause (Article IV, Section 3) and argued against this early example of judicial review. The Dred Scott ruling marked the first time the court had invalidated an entire federal statute.

Dred Scott’s Daughters, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857

The Taney Court's attempt to resolve the sectional crisis over slavery in favor of southern slaveholders moved the country closer to Civil War. But in the decision's aftermath, something equally unexpected occurred. Dred and Harriet Scott lost the case but weeks later, having been sold to new owners, were granted their freedom by manumission.

Newspaper attack on Justice Taney (Courtesy Dickinson College)

Meanwhile, the national reaction to the ruling proved explosive. Republicans denounced Taney bitterly, arguing that his opinions were dictum or non-binding because by denying Dred Scott a citizen’s standing to sue in federal court, the rest of the ruling was superfluous. Democrats, especially southerners, rallied angrily to the Court’s defense.

Two Speeches by Frederick Douglass, 1857 (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC 07591)

Frederick Douglass, a former slave, spoke for many anti-slavery northerners when he denounced the Taney Court as "not the only power in this world." "The Supreme Court of the Almighty is greater," he said defiantly in May 1857, calling on his audience to continue the fight against slavery and demand a different interpretation of the Constitution.

Lincoln's 'House Divided' Speech (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC 2533)

Abraham Lincoln spoke out against the Dred Scott decision as a disaster for the country. In this speech of December 1857, he also began for the first time to call the nation, "A House Divided" that could not "endure permanently, half slave, and half free."

Dred Scott Political Cartoon  (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Along with events such as the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas and John Brown’s raid in Virginia, the Dred Scott Case contributed to the escalating political crisis which turned the 1860 election into a bitter contest that resulted in victory for Lincoln and the Republicans, and secession for the Deep South.

New York Resolution Ratifying Fourteenth Amendment (Gilder Lehrman Collection, G

President Lincoln refused to accept southern secession or to compromise over his rejection of the Taney Court's rulings about slavery. The result was a Civil War that devastated the country, but ultimately ended slavery in America. Post-war constitutional amendments then overturned the major precedents of the Dred Scott decision.

Theodore Roosevelt’s letter reviling the Dred Scott Decision  (Gilder Lehrman Co

Ever since Dred Scott, politicians have invoked the case as an example of judicial overreach. Yet since 1857 the court's prestige and power has steadily grown. The Supreme Court continues to review both state and federal laws and still occasionally finds itself in the middle of grave national crises.

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