Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)


The infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case was decided on March 6th, 1857 and ruled in a 7-2 for Sandford. This case sparked a flame that would turn a disagreement between parts of the United States into a Civil War just three years after the case was decided. Dred Scott was a man born into slavery and moved across the United States following his slave master who was a doctor. In moving across the country Dred Scott spent a number of years in a slave free territory according to the Missouri Compromise, which entitled him to his freedom. However, his slave owner disagreed and refocused to grant his freedom. Dred Scott decided to sue in state court on the grounds that he lived in a free state and should be concerned free. Mr. Scott lost the case and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Taney delivered in the infamous Supreme Court decision citing that they could not decide the case because they believed he was in fact a slave, which made him not a citizen of the United States but property, and property could not sue. The Supreme Court decided that they did not have jurisdiction to make the decision in the case.  

Timeline 1


“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal..” In essence this statement would come to be defined in the result of Dred Scott v Sanford, that not all men in fact are created equal and that some men are simply property. Dred Scott was born in c. 1785 Southampton County, VA under the ownership of Peter Blow; however, when Blow passed away, Scott was sold to US army Dr. John Emerson where he met his wife in 1836 and they wed. The following 10 years Dred Scott and his wife enjoyed the “luxuries” of living in free states with the traveling doctor courtesy of the Missouri Compromise which established a boundary between free and slave regions. Nevertheless, when Dr. Emerson passed away and Scott tried to purchase his freedom, it was denied by Emerson’s widow which lead to the initial trial. In 1846, Scott filed the initial suit in St. Louis and won in the second trial however it was overturned by the Missouri State Supreme Court. After this court decision in 1854 Scott filed another suit in the federal court against John Sanford, the widow’s brother, and when Scott lost he turned to the Supreme Court hoping to gain a final and definitive ruling.

Procedural History

April 6, 1846– Dred Scott petitions to Judge Krum, of the St. Louis Circuit Court, for permission to bring suit for his freedom on the grounds of his residence in Illinois and in Minnesota Territory. Scott was granted the permission and issued a court order that Scott be allowed to sue with the usual conditions.

June 1847–Scott loses case in St. Louis Circuit Court due to a technicality–it had not been proven that Scott was actually a slave to Irene Emerson.

July 1, 1847–S. Manfield Bay, a former pupil of Salmon Chase and, from 1837 to 1843, Attorney General of the State and editor of its Supreme Court decisions moved for a new trial. Judge Hamilton granted the retrial.

July 2, 1847–Scott through his lawyers filed another petition, thereby starting the case of Scott vs. Alexander Sandford, Samuel Russell and Irene Emerson, alleging that his detention at Fort Snelling was a violation of the Missouri Compromise and asking three hundred dollars damages.

July 31, 1847–Now with two cases in the circuit court system, the court ordered the Scotts to choose between them. They elected to take the retrial and so the case of Scott vs. Alexander Sandford, Samuel Russell and Irene Emerson was now null and void, while the Scott vs. Emerson was continued.

January 12, 1850–The second trial began in the St. Louis Circuit Courts.The defendant’s [Dred Scott] counsel argued that the Scotts were really under military jurisdiction when they were in free territory. The jury ruled in favor of the Scotts and the whole family was declared free.

February 14,1850–Hugh Garland moved for a new trial and was refused. So, a bill of exceptions for an appeal is sent to the State Supreme Court by the defendant and was signed off.

April 10, 1852–Now being heard in front of the State Supreme Court, the case rendered a divided decision in favor of Mrs. Emerson, reversing the decision of the lower court. Judge Scott, presenting the majority opinion, wrote that the sovereign state of Missouri would no longer extend recognition to the emancipating statues of her sister commonwealths and the Federal government.

February 11, 1856–The Supreme Court of the United States of America heard the case for the first time.


In the Case Scott v. Sandford was of such high impact due to the significant constitutional issues that it brought into question. We could start by pointing out the issue if a slave or African American were entitled to be able to sue in federal courts or not. Which brings us to the simplest question, was Dred Scott free or slave? If so, could an item of property, in this case, a slave (himself) be taken from its owner without fair compensation? They could argue Dred Scott was free by entering to a Free State. If Dred Scott was free upon entering a free state, it brings up the question of whether a former slave could be considered a citizen. By this it brings up the issue, are they entitled then to all the rights, privileges, and immunities granted to American citizens under the United States Constitution? These constitutional issues brought by the case Scott v. Sandford were of great historical and modern day importance, and revolutionized the judicial system till this day.


In the infamous Supreme Court Case, Dred Scott v. Stanford, the court ruled in favor of Stanford, overturning the lower court’s decision. The Court cited that Dred Scott, had been a slave or was a slave and therefore, the court had “peculiar and limited jurisdiction” and could only hear cases brought before them by citizens of the United States under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

In a seven to two decision for Stanford, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the majority opinion joined by Justice Wayne, Justice Catron, Justice Daniel, Justice Nelson, Justice Campbell and Justice Grier.

Justices McLean and Curtis dissented the majority, both writing separate opinions on why the decision was invalid. Justice John McLean cited that the Court had no basis for the claim that Blacks were not or could not be citizens. Justice Benjamin Curtis, dissented with every point the majority made, citing that there are African American citizens in both Northern and Southern states at the time of this cases and therefore they are among the “people of the United States”. In addition Justice Curtis wrote that since the Court had no jurisdiction, no opinion should have been issued on the matter.

Majority Opinion (Taney)

Concurring Opinion (Wayne)

Concurring Opinion (Nelson)

Concurring Opinion (Grier)

Concurring Opinion (Daniel)

Concurring Opinion (Campbell)

Concurring Opinion (Catron)

Dissenting Opinion (McLean)

Dissenting Opinion (Curtis)

Full Text of Opinions

Decision Analysis

Significance / Impact

The Dred Scott Case decision decided on March 6, 1857, brought to head a tension brewing between Northern States and Southern States about the continuous of slavery into the western territories. The largest impact of the Dred Scott case was the catalyst it created; within four years of the, infamous Taney Majority Opinion of this case, several Southern States seceded from the Union after President Lincoln’s 1860 election. In addition, although the abolitionist control Congress Southern states and were elated about the decision in the Dred Scott case, they feared President Lincoln’s agenda. As stated by Watson.org, this case “raised such strong emotions well into the Civil War shows that it helped bring on the war by hardening the positions of each side to the point where both were willing to fight over the issue of slavery.”
The Supreme Court ruling became passionately debated across the whole nation. Opposing the Dred Scott decision, and the prohibition of greater expansion of slavery became the central Republican Party platform. The case became a direct attribution to Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential election in 1860 as well. Historians consider this case to be one of the direct causes of southern secession and the Civil War.

This Case remained the subject of historical and constitutional debate and significantly contributed to the separation which helped Abraham Lincoln’s election and started the Civil War. The nation realized after this decision like A. Lincoln stated:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand…The government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” It would go on to be overturned by the 14th amendment which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed.

Timeline 2

Scholarly Commentary and Debate

Constitutional Provisions

After this case, the state of a black person in America was decided: black people are property in the form of slaves and could not be citizens of the United States. However, change would occur with the election of Abraham Lincoln and the passing of the 14th, 15th, and 16th amendments.

Major Statute(s) Under Review

The only statue that came into question was when the court determined that Dred Scott was still a slave according to the Missouri Compromise which ruled whether slaves in select territories were still considered slaves.

Important Precedents

Somersett v. Stweart (1772)

Winny v. Whitesides (1824)

Jackson v Ashton(1834)

Rachel v. Walker (1836)

Capron v Van Noorden (1804)

Important Subsequent Cases

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Web Resources












Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

Hopkins, Vincent C. Dred Scott’s Case. New York: Atheneum, 1967.


Spring 2016: Delain Johnson, Diamond Griffith, Elizabeth Leon, Jsanelle Wright