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Landmark Cases: Dred Scott v Sandford | A Key Event in America’s Fight for Equality

Story Highlights
  • Background
  • The Missouri Compromise
  • Supreme Court’s Ruling
  • Impact of the Ruling

Dred Scott v. Sandford was a landmark US Supreme Court case in 1857 that dealt with the issue of slavery and citizenship for black Americans. The case centered on a slave named Dred Scott, who sued for his freedom in a federal court. The case’s outcome had far-reaching implications for the nation and is considered a significant step toward the American Civil War.


Dred Scott was a slave owned by John Emerson in Missouri. During Emerson’s military service, he moved Scott to Illinois (a free state) and the Wisconsin Territory (a free territory). Slavery had been made illegal in these territories under the Missouri Compromise. Scott married Harriet Robinson and attempted to purchase his freedom from Emerson’s widow, who refused. In 1846, with the help of antislavery lawyers, Dred and Harriet Scott filed lawsuits for their freedom, claiming residency in free states and territories had freed them from slavery. Only Dred’s case moved forward, and the decision applied to both.

The lawsuit was part of several hundred filed by or on behalf of slaves before the Civil War.

The Missouri Compromise

At the start of the 19th century, America’s stance on slavery was divided among the Northern and Southern states. The Northerners banned slavery, and the Southerners wished to continue the status quo. Tensions were beginning to arise between both blocs.

 The Missouri Compromise was a legislative agreement passed by the US Congress in 1820 that aimed to maintain a balance between the number of free and slave states and to temporarily ease tensions over the issue of slavery. The compromise admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state and banned slavery in any new territories formed north of 36° 30′ latitude (a line along the boundary between Tennessee and Kentucky), except Missouri.

Supreme Court’s Ruling

In 1857, the US Supreme Court heard the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford and ruled against Scott. Firstly, the court decided that Scott, being a slave, was considered property and not a citizen of the United States. As such, he was unable to bring a lawsuit in federal court. This reasoning needed to be revised, as there were states at the time in America where people of African descent were free and had the right to vote. According to Article 4 of the US constitution, these decisions taken by particular states must be respected by the other states.

What convoluted the issue further, however, was the decision to declare the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, ruling that Congress had no authority to restrict slavery in any territories as it was against the people’s right to property, and these slaves were property rather than citizens or people for that matter. The compromise was not the only such antislavery document, and in making this decision, the court had just delegitimized any steps taken towards the abolition of slavery in the entire country and, in doing so, had outraged the Northern states.

Impact of the Ruling

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford fueled tensions between Northern and Southern states and is considered a significant step toward the American Civil War. Many Southern states hailed the ruling as a reinforcement of their ideals, and their thoughts regarding the issue of slavery, and the Northern states objected with as much ferocity.

The decision solidified the division between Northern and Southern states and increased tensions over the issue of slavery. The ruling also dealt a blow to the abolitionist movement, which sought to end slavery in the US. The Chief Justice at the time, Roger Taney’s flawed and biased reasoning, led to his entire career being boiled down to one bad decision.

The Supreme Court’s ruling against Scott had far-reaching implications for the nation. The case is an important reminder of the US’s complicated history and the ongoing struggle for equality and justice for all.

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