Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857 Historical Deliberation Historical Background

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Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857

Historical Deliberation

Historical Background

By the mid 1850s, sectional conflict over the extension of slavery into the Western territories threatened to tear the nation apart. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 destroyed the tenuous balance struck 30 years before between the “free states” and the “slave states” in the Missouri Compromise. Under the banner of popular sovereignty, pro and anti-slavery factions waged violent conflict for control of what came to be known as “Bleeding Kansas” before that territory was admitted to the Union. The conflict over the extension of slavery destroyed the Whig Party, polarized the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern factions, and led to the formation of a new party, the Republicans, which sought to keep the soil of the new territories free. By 1856, the year in which South Carolina representative Preston Brooks beat Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner unconscious with a cane in the Senate chamber, tensions approached critical mass. With Congress sharply divided, reflecting the divisions in the nation, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of hearing the case of a fugitive slave suing for his freedom. Intended to be the definitive ruling that produced a definitive decision on the constitutionality of slavery, it served pushed the nation one step closer toward civil war.

The Case

Dred Scott was a Missouri slave. Sold to Army surgeon John Emerson in St. Louis in 1834, Scott was taken to Illinois, a free state, and on to the free Wisconsin Territory before returning to Missouri. When Emerson died in 1846, Scott sued Emerson’s widow for his freedom in the Missouri state courts, claiming that his residence in the “free soil” of Illinois made him a free man. After defeat in State courts, Scott brought suit in local Federal court. Eleven years after Scott’s initial suit, the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Key Questions to Consider:

  • Could a slave actually be a citizen of the United States, entitled to sue in federal courts?

  • Did a slave become free when he or she entered a free state?

  • Was the transportation of slaves subject to federal regulation?

  • Could the Federal government deny a citizen the right to property without due process of the law and without just compensation?

  • Was the Missouri Compromise a valid and constitutional action of the Federal Government? Could Congress prohibit slavery in a territory or give that power to a territory’s legislature?


You and two or three of your classmates are members of the US Supreme Court hearing the case Dred Scott vs. Sanford. In your groups, review the case. Then, read each of the documents and discuss what bearing it might have on your final verdict. After you are finished, deliberate to come to a unanimous decision as to the fate of Dred Scott. Write up a one page “Majority Opinion” on the back of this sheet that tells how your group is ruling the case, making sure to explain which documents were influential in your ruling. Finally, contemplate the overall impact of your ruling. Is the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional? Is slavery still legal? How will the North react to this decision? The South?

Justices: _______________, _________________, ________________
Majority Opinion

Chief Justice (writer): ________________

Overall Impact

(Is the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional? Is slavery still legal? How will the North react to this decision? The South?)

Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857

Documents List

*Note = You may not use all of the documents, however, all documents have something to do with the case and can be used to justify your ruling.
Document #1: Declaration of Independence, 1776

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Document #2: The Northwest Ordinance, 1784

Article. 6. “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.”

Document #3: The 3/5th Compromise, US Constitution, 1789

Article 1. “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three- fifths of all other Persons.”

Document #4: The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, 1791

No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Document #5: The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution, 1791

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Powers Delegated to the Federal Government (Article 1, US Constitution)

Print money (bills and coins)

Declare war

Establish an army and navy

Enter into treaties with foreign governments

Regulate commerce between states and international trade

Establish post offices and issue postage

Make laws necessary to enforce the Constitution

Document #6: The Missouri Compromise, 1820

Section 8. “And be it further enacted. That in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude, not included within the limits of the state, contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude… shall be, and is hereby, forever prohibited: Provided always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labour or service is lawfully claimed, in any state or territory of the United States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labour or service as aforesaid.”

Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857

The Outcome

In a 7-2 opinion, a majority of the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sanford. Chief Justice Taney wrote the opinion for the Court.  The Court first decided that African Americans were not citizens as defined by the Constitution.  They then considered the merits of the case, ruling that slaves did not become free simply by entering a free state or a territory that had not yet become a state.  This overturned the ruling of the lower federal court, but affirmed the ruling of the Missouri Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court first concluded that African Americans were not citizens as defined by the Constitution, and therefore, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts had no jurisdiction to hear this case.  The decision cited Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution which gives federal courts the delegated power to hear cases “between Citizens of different States.”  To determine the definition of “citizens,” the justices considered the intent of the framers of the Constitution.  They noted that at the time the Constitution was written, people of African descent, both slave and free, were “regarded as beings of an inferior order” and were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  Believing that the Court should not “give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction …than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted,” the Court concluded that people of African descent were not citizens, and could therefore “claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”  This included the ability to bring suit in federal court.
Even though the Court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear this case because it did not involve “Citizens of different States,” the justices ruled on the merits of case anyway.  They first argued that the power of Congress to regulate the internal workings of the territories that had not yet become states was limited.  They concluded that an act of Congress prohibiting citizens from “owning [slaves] in the territor[ies] … is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void.”  The Court thereby struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional because Congress did not have the power under the Constitution to determine whether slavery was allowed in the territories, even those these were not states.    
In addition, the Court concluded that slaves could not be made free simply by entering a free state or territory.  This would deprive slave owners of their property without giving them due process of law as required by the Fifth Amendment.  Accordingly, “an act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his …property, merely because he … brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States” was unconstitutional.  The Court held, therefore, that Dred Scott and his family were “property” and were not made free simply by virtue of the fact that they were brought into a free territory.

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