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, appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom. Instead, in 1857, in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, the United States Supreme Court declared that all blacks regardless of whether they were slaves or free men were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also ruled that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. The decision meant that slavery would be constitutionally permitted throughout the entire country and its territories.
Led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, the court's majority held that, because of Scott's color, he was not a citizen and therefore had no standing to sue. Taney wrote in the Court's majority opinion that the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks "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. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."
While the Declaration of Independence clearly includes the phrase "all men are created equal," Taney argued that "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."
Abolitionists were appalled by the court's decision. However, some, including Frederick Douglass, hoped that the ruling would put a spotlight on the issue of slavery and would ultimately result in its destruction.
Date Decided: March 6, 1857
Chief Justice Presiding: Roger B. Taney
Dissenting justice Benjamin Curtis disagreed with the Court's holding that Scott himself had no right to his own life and therefore no standing in the case. He wrote that the Court should acknowledge Scott's right to sue.