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A 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)

The events leading up to the infamous 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford were decades in the making. In 1834, Dred Scott, a slave of Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, left the slave state of Missouri to accompany his master first to the free state of Illinois and then to the free Wisconsin Territory. In 1846, years after his eventual return to Missouri and months after the subsequent death of his owner, Scott sued Emerson's widow (to whom title to Scott and his family had passed) for his and his family's freedom, on the basis of the time they had spent in the free state and territory. Established legal precedent in Missouri, in fact, upheld the "once free, always free" principle, and Scott's suit should have been a relatively routine process.

A legal technicality, however, complicated the case and delayed its outcome for years, during which time the political tensions around the issue of slavery continued to heighten. After Scott finally won his freedom in a lower Missouri court, J.F.A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother and the legal administrator of her property, appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which reversed precedent and decided against Scott. Scott's attorneys then filed the suit in federal court. In 1856, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. (Due to a misspelling of Sanford's name on court papers, the case was entered as Scott v. Sandford.) Although Scott's case was fraught with legal complications, the basic issue before the Court was whether, after spending time in a free state and a free territory, Scott remained a slave.

Each of the nine justices wrote a slightly different opinion in the case; ultimately, however, they voted 7-2 against Scott. In March 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the majority opinion. Drawing a distinction between state and federal citizenship, Taney held that although some states extended citizenship to blacks, under the terms of the U.S. Constitution, blacks were not -- and never could be -- citizens of the United States. At the time of the Constitution's ratification, Taney wrote, blacks were "regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his own benefit." Because Scott was not a U.S. citizen, said Taney, he had no standing to sue in federal court.

Taney's holding on standing should have decided the case, but he continued in an effort to settle the brewing sectional battle over slavery. He further held that, because the abolition of slavery in the territories was beyond the constitutional power of Congress and deprived slave owners of their property without due process of law, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (by which Missouri had been admitted to the Union as a slave state and the further expansion of slavery into all federal territories falling north of the southern boundary of Missouri was prohibited) had been unconstitutional. The decision marked only the second time in its history -- and the first since the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison -- that the Court had invoked its power of judicial review to overturn federal legislation.

Benjamin Curtis, a Massachusetts Whig who as a former state legislator had defended the Fugitive Slave Act on constitutional grounds -- and whose confirmation to the Court had been briefly held up by abolitionist opposition in the Senate -- found himself in the unlikely role of dissenter. Curtis' dissent was lengthy, offering a point-by-point rebuttal to each of Taney's assertions; it was also angry, although not out of any abolitionist zeal but rather due to his belief that Taney had used the Court to advance a distinctly political agenda. Curtis did not contest the basic distinction Taney had made between state and national citizenship. However, he held that the road to national citizenship was through state citizenship: any person deemed by any state to be its citizen was also, by definition, a citizen of the United States. In this way, a constitutional path to U.S. citizenship lay open to blacks.

Curtis conducted an extensive historical review of statutes, case law, and demographic records and asserted that in five of the original 13 states, blacks had held citizenship at the time of the Constitution's ratification -- and that they had therefore voted and participated in the process of its ratification. It was "not true, in point of fact, that the Constitution was made exclusively by the white race," he wrote. Therefore, blacks were "in every sense part of the people of the United States [as] they were among those for whom and whose posterity the Constitution was ordained and established." Significantly, however, although Curtis saw the Constitution as providing for the possibility of black citizenship, he stopped far short of endorsing full political equality for blacks -- and, in fact, would later oppose the full extension of the rights of national citizenship to blacks offered by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court's decision in Scott v. Sandford engendered a political maelstrom, inflaming sectional tensions between North and South and contributing to the run up to the Civil War. Frustrated by the political turn taken by the Court and by his antagonistic relationship with Taney, Curtis resigned from the Court less than six months after the decision. Abolitionists distributed copies of his dissent widely in pamphlet form, but Curtis remained an unwilling hero to their cause and kept himself out of the political fray. After the conclusion of the war, he strongly opposed the radical Republican vision for Reconstruction, and defended President Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial.

Toni Konkoly is a production assistant at Thirteen/WNET.

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