The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?
Dred Scott was born a slave and had been taken by his master, an army surgeon, into the free portion of the Louisiana territory. Upon his master's death, Scott argued that he was entitled to freedom. He contended that since slavery was outlawed in the free territory, he had become a free man there, and "once free, always free." The argument was rejected by a Missouri court, but Scott and his white supporters managed to take this case into higher federal court, where the issue simply became whether a slave had a legal right to even sue in a federal court. So the first question the Supreme Court had to decide was whether it had jurisdiction to rule over this case. If Scott had standing - that is, a legal right - then the Court had jurisdiction, and the justices could go on to decide the merits of his claim. But if, as a slave, Scott did not have standing, then the Court could dismiss the suit for lack of jurisdiction.

The Court ruled that Scott, a slave, could not achieve U.S. citizenship and therefore could not exercise the privilege of a free citizen to sue in federal courts. That should have been the end of the case, but then Chief Justice Taney and the other southern sympathizers on the Court hoped that a definitive ruling would settle the issue of slavery in the territories once and for all. They therefore continued on to rule that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional since Congress could not forbid citizens from taking their property, i.e., slaves, into any territory owned by the United States. A slave, Taney ruled, was property, nothing more, and could never be a citizen.

Dred Scott's case holds a unique place in American constitutional history as an example of the Supreme Court trying to impose a judicial solution on a political problem. The ruling, which helped to precipitate the Civil War, has long been considered one of the court's great "self-inflicted" wounds.

  • Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery A collection of images, documents, stories biograhies and commentaries. From PBS.

  • The Dred Scott Decision Profile of the Dred Scott decision and St. Louis' Old Courthouse, where the trials took place. By Bob Moore, Historian, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Park Service.

  • Dred Scott Research project on the Dred Scott decision. Includes case background, impact of the decision, Democratic and Republican reactions, and more.

  • The Dred Scott Case From Washington University in St. Louis. Features an archive of documents from the Dred Scott case.

  • The Dred Scott Decision From The History Place.

FindLaw Career Center

    Search for Law Jobs:

      Post a Job  |  View More Jobs
Ads by FindLaw