1857 March 6

“A Constitutional Evil”: The Dred Scott Decision


In what is widely reviled as the most outrageous decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Court declared that all African-Americans were not — and could never become — citizens of the United States, and that Dred Scott could not therefore bring suit in federal court. The Court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because it deprived slave owners of their property, thus permitting slavery in all of the country’s territories.

Dred Scott, a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri, had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom. After the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision was nullified by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially prohibited slavery nationwide and granted citizenship to former slaves.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, infamously wrote in the Court’s majority opinion: “In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument…They had for more than a century before been 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 which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

Learn more: Mark Graber, Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil (2006)

Learn more about the Dred Scott trial: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/dredscottlinks.html

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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