The Dred Scott Decision
There have been several cases in the history of the Supreme
Court that have had a powerful impact on both the highest
court of the land and the history of the United States. The
Dred Scott decision can definitely be included in this
category of monumental cases that changed the course of
American history. Until this decision the Supreme Court had
a flawless reputation. Its prestige and credibility were
beyond reproach. This high regard for the Supreme Court
made people on
both sides of the slavery issue turn to it in the hope that
what could not be resolved in the political world could be
solved in the legal world by the highest court of the land.
But this was really expecting too much of judicial power.
The major error associated with this case was the misguided
belief that a flaming political problem,slavery, could
become manageable by calling it a legal problem and handing
it over to the courts to resolve.
In the Dred Scott case the decision was based on
"expediency not principle." The big problem was trying to
use judicial power to settle a major political problem.
Although the Dred Scott decision may have been the result
of a trial , in reality it was a case of the court battling
with the complex issue of slavery, especially in the
territories, in the mid l800's.
In order to tell the story of a slave you have to tell the
story of his master.
The slave does not have an identity or history of his own.
In Virginia, Peter Blow and his family had many slaves.
Among these slaves was a young man named Sam, or as we know
him today, Dred Scott.
Peter Blow decided to move his estate to Alabama and then
to the thriving port city of St. Louis. During these years
,Dred married and had a child.
After the death of the Blows, Dred was sold to Dr. Emerson,
an army surgeon. He and Scott traveled through Illinois and
Minnesota. When Dr. Emerson died , Dred Scott was sent back
to St. Louis to Mrs. Emerson. This was when Scott argued
that under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, the fact
that he and Dr. Emerson lived in Illinois and Minnesota
made him a free man. The Missouri Compromise did not allow
slavery in whatever territory that remained from the
Louisiana Purchase north of a specific line, 36o 30' of
At this time the issue of slavery was a major concern. The
Mexican War provided the United States with a lot of new
territory, and the question of the future of slavery in the
territories was on everyones mind. The people of the North
who were against slavery wanted Congress to prohibit
slavery in the territories.
John C. Calhoun, the spokesman for the South, said that
Congress did not have the right to prohibit slavery in the
territories. The Southern attempt to extend the line of the
Missouri Compromise failed, so their only hope was
Calhoun's constitutional criticism of Congress' attempt to
prohibit slavery in the territories.This was why they
plunged themselves completely behind Calhoun's ideas.
Calhoun argued that the territories were "the common
property of the states of this Union. They are called the'
territories of the United States,' and what are the '
United States' but the States united? Sir, these
territories are the property of the States united; held
jointly for their common use." This statement beautifully
illustrates how extreme the Southern view of state
sovereignty was. It was the Southern belief that the states
should have the right to declare slavery in their states
and it is beyond congressional power to prohibit slavery.
Southerners believed that their very existence depended on
an equal amount of slave and free states. They realized
that if Congress prohibited slavery in the territories
there would be no more equality of slave states and free
The Northern view was based upon the Wilmot Proviso which
expressed the view that Congress had not only the right but
also the responsibility to prohibit slavery. The Northern
view was also based upon the very constitution itself which
said that Congress has the power to "make all needful Rules
and Regulations respecting the Territory... belonging to
the United States."
Calhoun presented his ideas to Congress, telling them that
the territories belong to the states and since Congress is
merely the agent of the states, it has no right to prohibit
slavery. It all came down to whether or not you believe
that state's rights are more important than federal rights
or vice versa. Many debates, including the Lincoln-Douglas
Debate, focused on this hot issue.
With much debate, Congress was hopelessly deadlocked. The
Senate would not approve any provision or law which denied
the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the
territories. The House did not approve any package which
included the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the
territories. The situation was completely inflexible . It
appeared as though nothing would change the situation in
Congress.It was decided by the South and agreed upon by the
North that there was but one solution to the mess that the
Union had gotten itself into: getting the judiciary
At that time the Supreme Court seemed to be incapable of
doing anything wrong. With the supreme leadership ability
of John Marshall and now Roger Taney, all problems seemed
to be solved, and solved correctly. Southerners saw that
nothing was happening to change the fact that Congress
could prohibit slavery in the territories. After a while
everyone seemed to feel that the judicial system was their
only hope for a solution. Even the loud Senator from
Illinois, by the name of Abraham Lincoln said:"The Supreme
Court of the United States is the tribunal to decide such
questions and we will submit to its decision."
So there it is . It is all up to the courts, through the
trials of a few cases,to decide upon the complex and
heavily debated issue of slavery. This is why the case of
Dred Scott played such an important role in American
In the first trial in l846, the St. Louis Circuit Court
denied Dred's plea for freedom. However, his lawyer set up
a retrial in 1850.
Scott claimed freedom because of his stay in Minnesota and
Illinois.After Dr. Emerson died, Scott became the property
of Mrs. Emerson. When she remarried she gave Dred to her
brother, Sanford , who regarded Dred as his property.
Sanford said that even though Dred Scott had been in
territories that prohibited slavery, his voluntary return
to St. Louis, a slave bearing state, made him a slave once
again. In the retrial Scott prevailed, but two years later,
in l852, Scott lost in the Missouri Supreme Court. At this
point the case began to attract a lot of public attention.
The case became a Federal case when Scott claimed that he
was a citizen of Missouri and that Sanford, a citizen of
New York, had assaulted him. Sanford
replied with a plea of abatement on the grounds that Dred
Scott was not a citizen of Missouri because his ancestors
came to the United States as slaves. Since Dred is not a
citizen, he cannot file a claim in a federal court. The
plea of abatement was denied because the judge claimed that
Scott was a citizen. After the trial the judge secretly
informed the jury to vote against Scott; this is what the
Dred Scott's lawyers filed a Writ of Error to the United
States Supreme Court. With a very heavy docket, the Supreme
Court planned to hear the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case two
years later, in the year of l856. Legal experts joined both
sides of the case as the attention of the entire country
became focused on this trial. The fact that Sanford had
entered a plea of abatement claiming that blacks were not
citizens, gave the entire case an added dimension of
importance. Not only was it involved with the vital
question of Congress' right to prohibit slavery in the
territories, it called into question the very right of
Negroes to be citizens . What is the use of Congress
prohibiting slavery in the territories if those freed from
slavery could not become citizens? The whole country
realized that this was the case they had all been waiting
for. This was the case that would make the ultimate
It would be very hard for Dred Scott to win this case. The
court was Southern and pro slavery. There were nine
justices. Taney, the Chief Justice, and four others were
from the South. Two of the Northern judges were for state
rights and one was pro slavery. Only one judge was against
After hearing the case, the judges wanted to rule in favor
of Sanford. This is an example of using the law to get the
results that you want. The judges wanted to use the law to
promote the view of the United States that they considered
most desirable. They could not decide on what legal
principle their decision should be based. Some judges
wanted to override Scott's status as a citizen. Justice
Nelson said that since this case was so controversial, and
the election of l856 was so controversial, they should wait
until after the election to hear new arguments. This
request was granted.
More arguments were heard and the judges decided upon a
verdict. The decision, which Justice Taney presented ,had
three main points: Negroes, even those who were not slaves,
could not be citizens of the United States, according to
the meaning of the Constitution. Scott's claim that he had
become a free man because he lived in a territory from
which slavery had been prohibited as a result of the
Missouri Compromise, was not valid. This was because the
Missouri Compromise which excluded slavery went beyond the
constitutional power of Congress. Finally, Scott was not
free because he had lived in Illinois. Once he returned to
Missouri he was obligated to obey the laws of Missouri and
was bound by the position he held in that state.
Lincoln was elected president and Congress prohibited
slavery in the territories without judicial restraint.
These two things helped the North gain power. People were
very upset with the Dred Scott ruling, even after his
death. Other cases received similar verdicts and were not
judged by the merits of the individual cases, but by the
issue of slavery. People were not getting fair trials even
though they were insured fair trials by the Constitution of
the United States of America.
Calhoun continued to fight and remained a defender of
slavery. He based his position on the right of states to
"regulate their own domestic institutions."
There was still much debate and the issue was nowhere close
to being solved. The hope of having it solved by the
Supreme Court proved to be an illusion. The mood of the
country was angry. Compromise was out of the question.
The Dred Scott case made the common folk aware of slavery
and its horrors. It added much more depth to the newly
formed Free Soil and Republican Parties. But it was also
used as a weapon for the Democrats. Every time the issue of
judiciary involvement came up, they just pointed to the
Dred Scott case. Republicans said it was just proof of
Southern unfairness, and a good reason to fight against
The South had extremists who stuck to their belief in their
absolute sovereignty. This further isolated and separated
the South from the rest of the country.
The Dred Scott case bears directly on the Civil War. It not
only strengthened the Republican Party but it also angered
them to the point that they were ready to fight in a war.
There was a war and the North prevailed. This war marked
the end of slavery, but was one of the most traumatic
events in the history of the United States.
The Dred Scott decision was a major factor in dividing the
nation beyond repair. It was the moving force for the Civil
War that followed it. The Supreme Court's consideration of
the case represented the last chance for a peaceful and
legal solution to the issue of slavery. All prior political
solutions proposed by Congress proved futile. Having
exhausted both political and legal means for a solution,
the fanatics took over and the bloodshed of war became
Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case, Its Significance
in American Law and
Politics New York: Oxford University Press,l978.
Hopkins,Vincent C. Dred Scott's Case New York:
Kutler, Stanley,I. The Dred Scott Decision, Law or
Politics? Boston: Houghton
Schwartz,Bernard , A History of the Supreme Court New York:
University Press, l993.