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Portrait of Dred Scott.
The Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, holding that blacks could not be U.S. citizens, exacerbated sectional tensions between North and South. Above, a portrait of Dred Scott.

Reproduction courtesy of the Library of Congress
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

In Dred Scott v. Sandford (argued 1856 -- decided 1857), the Supreme Court ruled that Americans of African descent, whether free or slave, were not American citizens and could not sue in federal court. The Court also ruled that Congress lacked power to ban slavery in the U.S. territories. Finally, the Court declared that the rights of slaveowners were constitutionally protected by the Fifth Amendment because slaves were categorized as property.

The controversy began in 1833, when Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon with the U.S. Army, purchased Dred Scott, a slave, and eventually moved Scott to a base in the Wisconsin Territory. Slavery was banned in the territory pursuant to the Missouri Compromise. Scott lived there for the next four years, hiring himself out for work during the long stretches when Emerson was away. In 1840, Scott, his new wife, and their young children moved to Louisiana and then to St. Louis with Emerson. Emerson died in 1843, leaving the Scott family to his wife, Eliza Irene Sanford. In 1846, after laboring and saving for years, the Scotts sought to buy their freedom from Sanford, but she refused. Dred Scott then sued Sanford in a state court, arguing that he was legally free because he and his family had lived in a territory where slavery was banned. In 1850, the state court finally declared Scott free. However, Scott's wages had been withheld pending the resolution of his case, and during that time Mrs. Emerson remarried and left her brother, John Sanford, to deal with her affairs. Mr. Sanford, unwilling to pay the back wages owed to Scott, appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. The court overturned the lower court's decision and ruled in favor of Sanford. Scott then filed another lawsuit in a federal circuit court claiming damages against Sanford's brother, John F.A. Sanford, for Sanford's alleged physical abuse against him. The jury ruled that Scott could not sue in federal court because he had already been deemed a slave under Missouri law. Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1856. Due to a clerical error at the time, Sanford's name was misspelled in court records.

The Supreme Court, in an infamous opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to take Scott's case because Scott was, or at least had been, a slave. First, the Court argued that they could not entertain Scott's case because federal courts, including the Supreme Court, are courts of "peculiar and limited jurisdiction" and may only hear cases brought by select parties involving limited claims. For example, under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, federal courts may only hear cases brought by "citizens" of the United States. The Court ruled that because Scott was "a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves," and thus "[not] a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution," Scott was not a citizen and had no right to file a lawsuit in federal court.

Second, the Court argued that Scott's status as a citizen of a free state did not necessarily give him status as a U.S. citizen. While the states were free to create their own citizenship criteria, and had done so before the Constitution even came into being, the Constitution gives Congress exclusive authority to define national citizenship. Moreover, the Court argued that even if Scott was deemed "free" under the laws of a state, he would still not qualify as an American citizen because he was black. The Court asserted that, in general, U.S. citizens are only those who were members of the "political community" at the time of the Constitution's creation, along with those individuals' heirs, and slaves were not part of this community. Finally, the Court argued that, in any case, Scott could not be defined as free by virtue of his residency in the Wisconsin Territory, because Congress lacked the power to ban slavery in U.S. territories. The Court viewed slaves as "property," and the Fifth Amendment forbids Congress from taking property away from individuals without just compensation. Justice Benjamin Curtis issued a strong dissent.

The decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford exacerbated risisng sectional tensions between the North and South. Although the Missouri Compromise had already been repealed prior to the case, the decision nonetheless appeared to validate the Southern version of national power, and to embolden pro-slavery Southerners to expand slavery to all reaches of the nation. Unsurprisingly, antislavery forces were outraged by the decision, empowering the newly formed Republican Party and helping fuel violence between slaveowners and abolitionists on the frontier. Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Congress passed, and the states ratified, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, all of which directly overturned the Dred Scott decision. Today, all people born or naturalized in the United States are American citizens who may bring suit in federal court.

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

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