In 1846, Dred Scott sued for his freedom. The Supreme Court ruled that since Scott was a slave, he lacked standing to sue.
On this day in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that all AfricanAmericans living in the United States — slaves as well as free persons — could never become citizens. It also invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, thereby permitting slavery in every federal territory. The verdict in the case, written by Chief Justice Roger Taney (1777-1864), inflamed regional feelings over slavery and served as a precursor to the Civil War.
In 1846, Dred Scott had sued for his freedom. He argued that because he had lived in Illinois, a free state, and later in Wisconsin, a free territory, he should not revert to becoming a slave after his master’s widow brought him to Missouri, a slave-holding state. Scott won his suit in a lower court, but the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision. Scott appealed, and because his new master, John F.A. Sanford, was a New York resident, the case moved to the federal courts.
On finally reaching the high tribunal, the majority held that since Scott was a slave, he lacked standing to sue. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, Taney wrote, believed blacks were “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.”
Citing the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, Taney argued, “It is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.”
Justices John McLean of Ohio and Benjamin R. Curtis of Massachusetts wrote strong dissents. Curtis undercut most of Taney’s historical arguments, showing that African-Americans had voted in several states when the nation was founded.
“At the time of the ratification of the Articles of Confederation,” he wrote, all free native-born inhabitants of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina, “though descended from African slaves, were not only citizens of those States, but such of them as had the other necessary qualifications possessed the franchise of electors, on equal terms with other citizens.”
The Dred Scott decision was effectively nullified in 1865 by the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and by the 14th Amendment in 1868, which guaranteed full citizenship rights to all Americans, regardless of race.
Among constitutional scholars, Scott v. Sandford — Sanford’s name was incorrectly spelled in court documents — is widely regarded as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions. It has been cited as an egregious example of seeking to impose a judicial solution to a political problem. A subsequent chief justice, Charles Evans Hughes, characterized the ruling as the court’s greatest “self-inflicted wound.”