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The New International Encyclopædia/Dred Scott Case

DRED SCOTT CASE. One of the most important cases ever decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. It came up from the lower court on an agreed statement of fact. One Dred Scott, a slave owned by Dr. Emerson, of the regular army, a resident of Missouri, had in 1834 been taken by his owner into Illinois, a Commonwealth where slavery was prohibited, and had later (1836) been taken into what is now Minnesota — a part of the Louisiana Purchase, in which slavery was expressly prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (q.v.). While on free territory (1836), Scott had been allowed to marry, his wife being a slave, also owned by Dr. Emerson; and, later — in 1838 — with his wife and a child born to them on free soil, he was taken back into Missouri. In 1848 he resolved to sue for his freedom, and in this purpose he was gratuitously aided by prominent lawyers of free-soil beliefs. The chief ground of his contention was that, through his residence in territory where slavery was prohibited, he had lost his status as a slave, and acquired that of a freeman. The Supreme Court of Missouri, however, held (1852) that upon being brought back into territory where slavery was legal, the status of slavery reattached to him, and that he had no standing before the court. As involving a question under the Federal laws and Constitution, the case was brought in 1854 before the Federal Circuit Court, which held that Scott was a citizen of Missouri, and could be a party in a suit before a Federal court, but decided the case against him. The case was then taken on appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the chief legal question was as to the correctness of the lower court's decision that the Federal court might take jurisdiction of a case brought by a person of such a status as was that of Scott. The case was argued at length in 1855 and 1856, and the decision was not finally handed down until March, 1857. The Supreme Court held (Curtis and McLean dissenting) that the Circuit Court had erred in entertaining the suit, because Scott was not a citizen, and therefore was not entitled to any standing in the courts; that at the time of the formation of the Constitution, negroes descended from negro slaves were not, and could not be, citizens in any of the States; and that there was no power in the existing form of government to make citizens of such persons. This point was so decided by a majority of the court. In the course of his decision, Judge Taney used the following language: “It is difficult, at this day, to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as 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, 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 a profit could be made by it. The opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race.” The single sentence, “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” has often been quoted apart from its connection, though it was designed merely as a statement of opinions prevalent when the Constitution was adopted. A dissenting opinion, however, was read by Mr. Justice Curtis, showing the error of Chief Justice Taney's historical argument against the possibility of such persons attaining citizenship, and forcibly contending that as nothing had been shown except that Scott was a negro and was descended from negroes who had been slaves, his claim to citizenship had not been seriously controverted. Not content with deciding the only question of law involved, the Chief Justice, in an obiter dictum which has become historic, went further, and undertook the discussion of matters generally considered foreign to the case and not necessarily involved in the decision of the lower court. Taking up the subject, at that time of vital importance, of the power of Congress over the Territories, the majority of the court held that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional; that the power of Congress to govern the Territories was subordinate to its obligation to protect private rights in property; that slaves were property, and, as such, were protected by the constitutional guarantees; that Congress had no power to prohibit a citizen of any State from carrying into any Territory slaves or any other property; and that Congress had no power to impair the constitutional protection of such property while thus held in a Territory. By this dictum (from which Curtis and McLean wholly, and Catron partially, dissented) one of the extreme doctrines of the pro-slavery party was affirmed as correct, and even the dogma of ‘popular sovereignty’ was discountenanced. The decision, coming immediately after the inauguration of Buchanan, aroused intense feeling, made still more clear the issues which were to be decided in the impending crisis, and impressed upon the North the seriousness of the task of the party of freedom, when opposed both by the executive and by the judicial departments of the National Government. The full text of the decision is in vol. xix. of Howard's United States Reports. Consult also Tyler, Life of R. B. Taney (Baltimore, 1872); and G. T. Curtis, Memoirs and Writings of Benjamin R. Curtis (Boston, 1880).