What was the Dred Scott case?

Dred Scott v. Sandford,[1] 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), commonly referred to as The Dred Scott Decision, was a decision by the United States Supreme Court that ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants[2]—whether or not they were slaves—were not protected by the Constitution and could never be citizens of the United States. It also held that the United States Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The Court also ruled that because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Lastly, the Court ruled that slaves—as chattel or private property—could not be taken away from their owners without due process. The Supreme Court's decision was written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

Although Dred Scott was never overruled by the Supreme Court itself, in the Slaughter-House Cases of 1873 the Court stated that at least one part of it had already been overruled in 1868 by the Fourteenth Amendment:

"The first observation we have to make on this clause is, that it puts at rest both the questions which we stated to have been the subject of differences of opinion. It declares that persons may be citizens of the United States without regard to their citizenship of a particular State, and it overturns the Dred Scott decision by making all persons born within the United States and subject to its jurisdiction citizens of the United States." ... more on the Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott case from Wikipedia.

Dred Scott, Plantiff In Error v. John F. A. Sandford

Supreme Court of the United States
60 U.S. 393 (How.)
Argued : February 11 – 14, 1856, February 15 – 18, 1856
Decided : March 6, 1857

Separate Decision written by Associate Justice John Catron

The defendant pleaded to the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court, that the plaintiff was a negro of African blood; the descendant of Africans, who had been imported and sold in this country as slaves, and thus had no capacity as a citizen of Missouri to maintain a suit in the Circuit Court. The court sustained a demurrer to this plea, and a trial was had upon the pleas, of the general issue, and also that the plaintiff and his family were slaves, belonging to the defendant. In this trial, a verdict was given for the defendant.

The judgment of the Circuit Court upon the plea in abatement is not open, in my opinion, to examination in this court upon the plaintiff's writ.

The judgment was given for him conformably to the prayer of his demurrer. He cannot assign an error in such a judgment. (Tidd's Pr., 1163; 2 Williams's Saund., 46 a; 2 Iredell N. C., 87; 2 W. and S., 391.) Nor does the fact that the judgment was given on a plea to the jurisdiction, avoid the application of this rule. (Capron v. Van Noorden, 2 Cr., 126; 6 Wend., 465; 7 Met., 598; 5 Pike, 1005.)

The declaration discloses a case within the jurisdiction of the court- a controversy between citizens of different States. The plea in abatement, impugning these jurisdictional averments, was waived when the defendant answered to the declaration by pleas to the merits. The proceedings on that plea remain a part of the technical record, to show the history of the case, but are not open to the review of this court by a writ [60 U.S. 393, 519] of error. The authorities are very conclusive on this point. Shepherd v. Graves, 14 How., 505; Bailey v. Dozier, 6 How., 23; 1 Stewart, (Alabama,) 46; 10 Ben. Monroe, (Kentucky,) 555; 2 Stewart, (Alabama,) 370, 443; 2 Scammon, (Illinois,) 78. Nor can the court assume, as admitted facts, the averments of the plea from the confession of the demurrer. That confession was for a single object, and cannot be used for any other purpose than to test the validity of the plea. Tompkins v. Ashley, 1 Moody and Mackin, 32; 33 Maine, 96, 100.

There being nothing in controversy here but the merits, I will proceed to discuss them.

The plaintiff claims to have acquired property in himself, and became free, by being kept in Illinois during two years.

The Constitution, laws, and policy, of Illinois, are somewhat peculiar respecting slavery. Unless the master becomes an inhabitant of that State, the slaves he takes there do not acquire their freedom; and if they return with their master to the slave State of his domicil, they cannot assert their freedom after their return. For the reasons and authorities on this point, I refer to the opinion of my brother Nelson, with which I not only concur, but think his opinion is the most conclusive argument on the subject within my knowledge.

It is next insisted for the plaintiff, that his freedom (and that of his wife and eldest child) was obtained by force of the act of Congress of 1820, usually known as the Missouri compromise act, which declares: 'That in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, which lies north of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, slavery and involuntary servitude shall be, and are hereby, forever prohibited.'

From this prohibition, the territory now constituting the State of Missouri was excepted; which exception to the stipulation gave it the designation of a compromise.

The first question presented on this act is, whether Congress had power to make such compromise. For, if power was wanting, then no freedom could be acquired by the defendant under the act. That Congress has no authority to pass laws and bind men's rights beyond the powers conferred by the Constitution, is not open to controversy. But it is insisted that, by the Constitution, Congress has power to legislate for and govern the Territories of the United States, and that by force of the power to govern, laws could be enacted, prohibiting slavery in any portion of the Louisiana Territory; and, of course, to abolish slavery in all parts of it, whilst it was, or is, governed as a Territory. My opinion is, that Congress is vested with power to govern [60 U.S. 393, 520] the Territories of the United States by force of the third section of the fourth article of the Constitution. And I will state my reasons for this opinion.

Amlost every provision in that instrument has a history that must be understood, before the brief and sententious language employed can be comprehended in the relations its authors intended. We must bring before us the state of things presented to the Convention, and in regard to which it acted, when the compound provision was made, declaring: 1st. That 'new States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.' 2d. '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 nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to prejudice any claims of the United States, or any particular State.'

Having ascertained the historical facts giving rise to these provisions, the difficulty of arriving at the true meaning of the language employed will be greatly lessened.

The history of these facts is substantially as follows:

The King of Great Britain, by his proclamation of 1763, virtually claimed that the country west of the mountains had been conquered from France, and ceded to the Crown of Great Britain by the treaty of Paris of that year, and he says: 'We reserve it under our sovereignty, protection, and dominion, for the use of the Indians.'

This country was conquered from the Crown of Great Britain, and surrendered to the United States by the treaty of peace of 1783. The colonial charters of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, included it. Other States set up pretensions of claim to some portions of the territory north of the Ohio, but they were of no value, as I suppose. (5 Wheat., 375.) ... more on the Justice Catron's separate decision for supporting the Court's majority

Biography of Associate Justice John Catron

Associate Justice John Catron who wrote a separate supporting decision in the Dred Scott case

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
In office: March 8, 1837[1] – May 30, 1865
Nominated by: Andrew Jackson
Born: January 7, 1786 Wythe County, Virginia
Died: May 30, 1865 (aged 79) Nashville, Tennessee
Religion: Presbyterian

John Catron (January 7, 1786 – May 30, 1865) was an American jurist who served as a US Supreme Court justice from 1837 to 1865. " ... more at Wikipedia's full biography of John Catron.

About the Dred Scott Case

In 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit for their freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. This suit began an eleven-year legal fight that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a landmark decision declaring that Scott remain a slave. This decision contributed to rising tensions between the free and slave states just before the American Civil War.

The records displayed in this exhibit document the Scotts' early struggle to gain their freedom through litigation and are the only extant records of this significant case as it was heard in the St. Louis Circuit Court. ... More on the Dred Scott case from Washington University in St.Louis.

Contemporary newspaper accounts on the Dred Scott case

The Issue Forced Upon Us.
Evening Journal[Republican]Albany, New York
(9 March 1857)

The three hundred and forty-seven thousand five hundred and twenty-five Slaveholders in the Republic, accomplished day before yesterday a great success -- as shallow men estimate success. They converted the Supreme Court of Law and Equity of the United States of America into a propagandist of human Slavery. Fatal day for a judiciary made reputable throughout the world, and reliable to all in this nation, by the learning and the virtues of Jay, Rutledge, Ellsworth, Marshall and Story!

The conspiracy is nearly completed. The Legislation of the Republic is in the hands of this handfull of Slaveholders. The United States Senate assures it to them. The Executive power of the Government is theirs. Buchanan took the oath of fealty to them on the steps of the Capitol last Wednesday. The body which gives the supreme law of the land, has just acceded to their demands, and dared to declare that under the charter of the Nation, men of African descent are not citizens of the United States and can not be -- that the Ordinance of 1787 was void -- that human Slavery is not a local thing, but pursues its victims to free soil, clings to them wherever they go, and returns with them -- that the American Congress has no power to prevent the enslavement of men in the National Territories -- that the inhabitants themselves of the Territories have no power to exclude human bondage from their midst -- and that men of color can not be suitors for justice in the Courts of the United States! The Lemmon Case is on its way to this corrupt fountain of law. Arrived there, a new shackle for the North will be handed to the servile Supreme Court, to rivet upon us. A decision of that case is expected which shall complete the disgraceful labors of the Federal Judiciary in behalf of Slavery -- a decision that slaves can lawfully be held in free States, and Slavery be fully maintained here in New York through the sanctions of "property" contained in the Constitution. That decision will be rendered. The Slave breeders will celebrate it as the crowning success of a complete conquest. But how they will reckon without their hosts!

Beneath Courts and Congresses and Presidents is the great PEOPLE. They love liberty -- they love justice -- they love humanity. Till they affirm the decisions of Law embruting man's divine nature, and till they approve of legislation which defies God, and till they order Executives to execute iniquity, this conspiracy of the Oligarchy is wholly incomplete. That consent will forever and ever be wanting. But one thing will not be wanting -- the resolute purpose of the humane, the just and the free men of the Free States, to meet the close issue forced upon them through the decision of the case of Dred, squarely and fairly, and never to abate their efforts to recover the entire administration of the Republic away from Slavery and back again to Freedom.

All who love Republican institutions and who hate Aristocracy, compact yourselves together for the struggle which threatens your liberty and will test your manhood!

Webring on Dred Scott


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