Scott v. Sandford

Place: Washington, DC

The Scott v. Sandford case resulted in one of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions and became a major cause of the American Civil War. The roots of the case were complicated but mainly resulted from Dred Scott and his family's owner, army surgeon John Emerson, being assigned to a variety of military posts throughout slave and free states. Emerson purchased Scott in Missouri but was later stationed in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. When Emerson received a transfer back to Missouri in 1837, he left Scott and his family behind and hired them out. The following year, Emerson brought the Scotts to his new station in Louisiana and the Scotts's daughter, Eliza, was born en route while in a free state. Before the end of the year, Emerson was once again assigned to the Wisconsin Territory and took the Scotts with him. In 1840, Emerson's wife, Eliza, moved to St. Louis, Missouri. She took the Scotts with her and once again hired them out. Emerson died in 1843 and his wife inherited the Scotts. Dred Scott tried to purchase his family's freedom in 1846, but Eliza Emerson refused and Scott sued.

The St. Louis County Court heard the case, with the Scotts receiving legal advice from abolitionists. Scott's representatives argued that the family's extended presence in free states as well as Eliza Scott's birth outside of slavery necessitated their emancipation, but the case was dismissed on a technicality. The judge granted Scott a retrial at the end of 1849 and, in early 1850, the jury decided in Scott's favor. Eliza Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's decision in 1852.

Eliza Emerson remarried and left the Scotts in the care of her brother, John Sandford, who subsequently moved to New York but maintained business interests in Missouri. As a result, Scott was able to file another suit in the St. Louis Circuit Court in 1853. The court ruled against Scott in 1854 and he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Montgomery Blair represented Scott and Reverdy Johnson represented Sandford with help from Henry S. Geyer. The Supreme Court held consultation over the case in April 1856 and heard a reargument in December. The justices consulted on February 14, 1857, and determined that they would follow precedent by dismissing the case on the grounds that slavery ownership was the purview of the state courts. However, at some point between February 14 and 19, the court decided to rule on the case, possibly due to a desire to finally settle the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise and possibly due to the influence of President-Elect James Buchanan. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority decision on March 6.

Taney's decision rested on two principles. The first was that neither Scott nor any current or emancipated slave was a citizen of the United States because a slave could not be born into citizenship and could not be naturalized. As a result, Scott had no right to sue Emerson or Sandford. The second principle was that all American citizens had the right to transport their property wherever they chose within the United States, which effectively declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. The decision was extremely controversial and further inflamed Republicans and anti-slavery northerners who were already fearful of slavery's expansion due to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It became a major point of contention during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1858. The decision effectively made slavery a national institution and severely inhibited the U.S. Congress' ability to forge future compromises, thereby sharply escalating the sectional conflict and moving the nation towards civil war.

Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 267-93; Mark A. Graber, Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Walter Ehrlich, "Dred Scott Case," Dictionary of American History, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), 2:370.