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The Impending Crisis

The Dred Scott Decision Previous Next
Digital History ID 3282



On March 6, 1857, in a small room in the Capitol basement, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories.

In 1846, a Missouri slave, Dred Scott, sued for his freedom. Scott argued that while he had been the slave of an army surgeon, he had lived for four years in Illinois, a free state, and Wisconsin, a free territory, and that his residence on free soil had erased his slave status. In 1850 a Missouri court gave Scott his freedom, but two years later, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed this decision and returned Scott to slavery. Scott then appealed to the federal courts.

For five years, the case proceeded through the federal courts. For more than a year, the Court withheld its decision. Many thought that the Court delayed its ruling to ensure a Democratic victory in the 1856 elections. Then, in March 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney announced the Court's decision. By a 7-2 margin, the Court ruled that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the territories.

All nine justices rendered separate opinions, but Chief Justice Taney delivered the opinion that expressed the position of the Court's majority. His opinion represented a judicial defense of the most extreme proslavery position.

The chief justice made two sweeping rulings. The first was that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court because neither slaves nor free blacks were citizens of the United States. At the time the Constitution was adopted, the chief justice wrote, blacks had been "regarded as beings of an inferior order" with "no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Second, Taney declared that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the federal territories since any law excluding slavery property from the territories was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the seizure of property without due process of law. For the first time since Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional.

Newspaper headlines summarized the Court's rulings:


In a single decision, the Court sought to resolve all the major constitutional questions raised by slavery. It declared that the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were not intended to apply to black Americans. It stated that the Republican Party platform--barring slavery from the western territories--was unconstitutional. And it ruled that Stephen Douglas's doctrine of "popular sovereignty"--which stated that territorial governments had the power to prohibit slavery--was also unconstitutional.

Republicans reacted with scorn. The decision, said the New York Tribune, carried as much moral weight as "the judgment of a majority of those congregated in any Washington barroom." Many Republicans--including an Illinois politician named Abraham Lincoln--regarded the decision as part of a slave power conspiracy to legalize slavery throughout the United States.

The Dred Scott decision was a major political miscalculation. In its ruling, the Supreme Court sought to solve the slavery controversy once and for all. Instead the Court intensified sectional strife, undercut possible compromise solutions to the divisive issue of the expansion of slavery, and weakened the moral authority of the judiciary.

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