The Dred Scott Decision of 1857


The Dred Scott Decision of 1857 had a tremendous impact on the relations between the North and South and was one of the determining factors in the Civil War.

The decision, written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a southerner, made two important points. First it declared that slaves were not citizens and could not sue in court. Secondly, the decision stated that slaves were the property of their masters and could be taken to any state, regardless of its slave or free status, that the owner wished.

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Though the Dred Scott Decision seems harsh and ugly by today’s thinking, it was actually grounded in constitutional precedent. In 1787, two compromises that pertained to slavery had been reached by northern and southern delegates at the Constitutional Convention. First was the 3/5 Compromise which allowed southern states to count 3/5 of their slave population for the purpose of representation in Congress. Also, the Slave Trade Compromise forbade the importation of slaves after 1808. Both of these compromises served to put into the Constitution a recognition of slavery in the United States. When the justices on the Supreme Court in 1847, a majority of whom were southern, ruled against Dred Scott and in favor of slaveholders’ property rights, they were basing their ruling on this protection of slavery that had existed since the Constitution was written.

Another consideration was the 5th amendment to the Constitution. This amendment protects due process for American citizens. Included in due process is the right to keep and maintain property that rightfully belongs to a citizen. Taney’s decision cited this right. Slaves were considered the property of owners, most of whom had purchased them legally through auctions. Dred Scott’s attorney contended that Dred Scott had been taken by his owner into free territory. Using this premise, Scott, with the help of abolitionists, sued for his freedom after his owner’s death. Basically, Taney refuted this premise as unconstitutional. As property, Dred Scott could be taken into any territory. Even farther, Taney wrote in his decision that the entire notion of slave and free states was a moot point. If slaves were property, like livestock or baggage, they could be carried into any part of the United States without consideration of status. The Missouri Compromise line, which had already been wiped out by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, was never legal, according to Taney. Additionally, the idea of popular sovereignty on the issue of slavery in the territories was struck down by the decision because logically there was no basis for it.

The Dred Scott Decision had a huge impact on the debate that was festering in 1857 about slavery in the territories, and basically on the legality of slavery in general. For the most part, northern states, and the Congress which was dominated at this time by the North, chose to ignore the decision. This prompted cries of outrage from southerners who wanted the decision validated by executive or congressional action. It became the focus of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates when Lincoln posed the question to Douglas about his stand on the Dred Scott Decision. A fence-straddler, Douglas had supported popular sovereignty as a way to deal with the status of slavery in the territories. When Douglas chose to continue his support for popular sovereignty, he lost the support of southerners in the 1860 presidential election.


Though the Dred Scott Decision inflamed feelings between the two sides and, in its way, helped to lead to the Civil War, it was eventually invalidated by two amendments to the Constitution. The 13th amendment freed the slaves in the United States. The 14th amendment provided for citizenship for black males. Both of these amendments were required to be approved and recognized by southern states returning to the Union during the Reconstruction period. Since slavery had been instituted through the original compromises in the Constitution, it took constitutional amendments to destroy it.

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