Old Supreme Court Chamber

The Dred Scott Decision

Journalists jammed the Supreme Court chamber on March 6, 1857, in anticipation of a monumental decision about slavery in the territories. Two days earlier in his inaugural address, President James Buchanan had indicated that the court would at last settle this vexatious issue. The case involved Dred Scott, a slave to an army surgeon, who had accompanied his master into free territories. In 1846, after his owner died, Scott sued the estate's executor, John F.A. Sanford, for his freedom, since he had lived so long on free soil. The case reached the Supreme Court a decade later.

On February 11, 1856, Montgomery Blair argued in Scott's behalf. After reargument in December, eighty-year old Chief Justice Roger B. Taney on March 6 delivered the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (the court's misspelling). Himself a slaveholder, Taney declared that African Americans had never been citizens of the United States and that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from the territories, thus invalidating the Missouri Compromise. Instead of settling the issue, the decision further inflamed antislavery sentiment in the North and contributed to the coming of the Civil War.

The Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution later voided the ruling. Granted freedom by his owners in May 1857, Dred Scott died the following year.

For further reading:

Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York; Oxford University Press, 1978).