Dred Scott v. Sandford

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13563

In 1857, an enslaved man argued that he became free the moment he was brought to live in a state that did not recognize slavery. Did the Supreme Court agree? Did it even hear the argument?


Civics, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Long before the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.S. Congress made slavery instantly illegal in half the country.

  • Obviously enslaving people is horrible, but did Congress have the authority to do this?

This question would play a huge role in the Supreme Court decision of Dred Scott v Sandford.

Missouri Compromise

1857 map of free, slave, and undecided states

By the 1820s, the United States had found a balance between free and slave states.

With 11 free and 11 slave states, the rest of the country's future was uncertain. When new territories entered the Union, how the power imbalance would be handled had to be decided.

To understand the politics of this compromise, watch What Was the Missouri Compromise? | History :

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For decades, the process of maintaining this balance in Congress persisted. However, by the 1850s, there was a new way to decide whether a state would be free or not.

During this antebellum period, Kansas and Nebraska were territories about to become states when the U.S. government decided to embrace the principle of states' rights. Kansas and Nebraska were given the choice to decide on their own whether they would allow the institution of slavery.

By embracing this strategy of states' rights, the federal government was able to deflect the issue of slavery. Many politicians were reluctant to deal head-on with the divisive issue.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott, circa 1857

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Dred Scott was an enslaved man in the slave state of Missouri. His first owner, Mr. Emerson, took him through the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin.

After getting back to Missouri, Scott sued Emerson because he believed any time in a free state meant he was emancipated immediately. Past court cases, such as Somerset v. Stewart and Winny v. Whitesides, had set the precedent that an enslaved person must be freed in free territory.

However, the case got nowhere in the Missouri court, where the justices asserted Scott should have sued while still in free territory. As the debate over slavery heated up in the 1850s, courts were less willing to rule on the side of enslaved individuals.

In 1853, Dred Scott was sold to John Sanford, a resident of New York state.

While still in Missouri, Scott filed a new case against his new owner based on the same argument: Dred Scott v. Sandford. [Although the man's name was Sanford, the case was filed as Sandford, so that is the accurate case name.]

The only difference between this new case and Scott's original suit was that Sanford was a resident of a different state. Interstate lawsuits must be dealt with by the Supreme Court because no single state has the authority to adjudicate.

  • So, what did the United States Supreme Court decide?

Dred Scott v. Sandford

The Supreme Court found that there were no grounds to even hear Dred Scott's argument.

Follow the facts at that time to understand this decision:

  • Slavery is legal in 1854.
  • Slavery is the ownership of another person.
  • If you own someone, he or she is your property.
  • The U.S. Constitution states that the federal government has no authority to confiscate any property without compensation.
  • Does that make sense?

It is horrific to consider people to be property. At that time, though, certain people were considered property and, therefore, could not be taken away by the government.

Based on this argument, the Supreme Court went even further and said that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

  • How?
  • What did the Missouri Compromise have to do with this case?


James Buchanan, 1864

James Buchanan won the 1856 presidential election and did not want slavery to be an issue during his term. He hoped that this court case would settle the matter and tried to convince Chief Justice Roger Taney how important it was to neutralize the conflict before it got out of hand.

Taney, concerned with maintaining peace in the United States, had to decide what to do.

  • Should he uphold the precedent of past court cases or ensure his good standing with the president?
  • Should he try to stop the conflict of slavery from taking over American politics?

Roger B. Taney, circa 1855

Image [cropped] by Mathew Brady, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

What Chief Justice Taney did was similar to what the Supreme Court did in the court case Marbury v. Madison.

Taney and the Supreme Court asserted that Congress never had the authority to issue the Missouri Compromise Act. Because Congress overstepped its authority by choosing where a person was considered property and where that same person was not considered property, the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to determine if Dred Scott's entrance into the free state of Illinois should have given him his freedom.

The official Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, courtesy of JUSTIA, read:

Now, ... the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. ... Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the [36°N 36' latitude] line therein mentioned is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void...

While it is cold, without a Constitutional amendment prohibiting the ownership of people, the court found the government had no standing to rule on the matter.

If the Missouri Compromise were unconstitutional, then the premise of becoming free by going into a "free state" was no longer a question the Supreme Court even had to answer.

This was one of the few times the Supreme Court sided against enslaved people, and it marked an especially tense period in American history.

James Buchanan cared more about preserving the Union than he did about abolishing slavery. Abraham Lincoln, who succeeded Buchanan as president, also cared more about the Union. However, Lincoln would eventually realize the Union would crumble if the institution of slavery continued.

Continue on to the Got It? section to explore what effect deflecting the question of slavery had on the debate over slavery.

  • Did the reasoning behind this case hold up?
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