The Supreme Court
This set the stage for Dred Scott to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. What had begun as a relatively simple claim by a slave to be free had now turned into an extremely important case involving race, citizenship, federal law, the power of Congress, and national politics.
In March 1857, two days after Buchanan’s inauguration, Chief Justice Taney announced the decision in the Dred Scott case. In his ‘‘Opinion of the Court,’’ Taney declared that no black person could ever be a citizen of the United States, and that Dred Scott, even if free, could therefore not sue Sanford in federal court.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in the spring of 1856, but it did not decide the case then; instead, it ordered a re-argument for December 1856. In the intervening months the nation went through a presidential campaign in which the recently created Republican Party promised to prevent the spread of slavery into the western territories and to prevent any more slave states from entering the Union. The party carried eleven free states, sending a shudder through the South. Had the Republican candidate, John C. Fremont, carried just a few more states, he would have become president. Instead, a proslavery Democrat, James Buchanan, won the election.
In March 1857, two days after Buchanan’s inauguration, Chief Justice Taney announced the decision in the Dred Scott case. In his ‘‘Opinion of the Court,’’ Taney declared that no black person could ever be a citizen of the United States, and that Dred Scott, even if free, could therefore not sue Sanford in federal court. On the basis of this part of the decision, Taney might have declared that he had no jurisdiction to hear the case at all. Critics of the decision argued he should have done this. However, Taney did not stop with this pronouncement. He also addressed the effect of the Missouri Compromise on the status of slaves brought into territories made free by federal law. He concluded that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the federal territories, and he thus held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, as were all other restrictions on slavery in the territories. These two dramatic and controversial rulings placed the decision at the center of American politics and law for the next decade-and-a-half.
Thus, Taney argued that framers of the Constitution did not intend to include blacks as citizens and that they could not now be considered citizens. He wrote:
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, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution.
The very nature of this question led Taney to conclude that blacks had no such rights. This analysis conflicted with both the history of the nation’s founding and with current practice. At the time of the founding, blacks voted in a number of states and even held office in some of them. In most of the northern states and at least one southern state (North Carolina), free blacks voted in the elections to choose delegates to attend the state conventions to ratify the Constitution. These voters were certainly considered citizens when the nation ratified the Constitution. Furthermore, at the time that Taney wrote his opinion, free blacks could vote in a number of states, and in some states free blacks had held public office since the American Revolution. But he argued that even free blacks living in those states could never be citizens of the United States and have standing to sue in federal courts. Thus, Taney set up the novel concept of dual citizenship. He argued that being a citizen of a state did not necessarily make one a citizen of the United States.
Taney based this novel argument entirely on race. He offered a slanted and one-sided view of American history that ignored the fact that free blacks had voted in a number of states at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. Ignoring this, the Chief Justice nevertheless argued that at the founding of the nation blacks were either all slaves or, if free, without any political or legal rights. He declared that blacks:
Are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘‘citizens’’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim non eof the rights and privileges which that instrument provides and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time  considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and government might choose to grant them.
Dual citizenship meant that Massachusetts, where blacks were full and equal citizens, could not force its notions of citizenship on the slave states. It also meant that Southern states did not have to grant privileges and immunities, or any other rights, to the free black citizens of Massachusetts and other Northern states; moreso, the way America is in 2017. Taney’s opinion horrified not only free blacks, but also many Northern whites. The antebellum North was hardly a bastion of racial equality, but many northerners who would never have advocated social equality or political rights for blacks nevertheless believed that blacks had minimal rights of citizenship.
The vast majority of Northern whites were even more shocked by Taney’s conclusion that Congress could never ban slavery from the federal territories. Taney reached this conclusion through two routes. First, he asserted that the Territory Clause of Article IV of the Constitution did not apply to territories acquired after 1787. This argument was weak and unpersuasive, and may not even have had a majority of the court supporting it. More persuasive, and more ominous for Northerners, was Taney’s assertion that the Fifth Amendment prevented Congress from ever freeing slaves because slaves were property that was specifically protected by the Constitution.
The message of Dred Scott was profoundly depressing for African Americans in antebellum America. African Americans had no rights — was the lesson of Dred Scott. The impact of the decision, however, was hardly what Taney expected. In the North, there was an uproar of protest and a rededication of purpose for Republicans. In Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, a relatively obscure railroad lawyer and one-term Congressman, re-entered politics to denounce the decision. In 1862 and 1863—less than six years after Taney announced his decision—Lincoln, by this time the President of the United States, would sign legislation ending slavery in the District of Columbia and the federal territories, and he would then issue the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in most of the South. By 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment would end slavery throughout the nation. In 1866, Congress would declare that all people born in the United States—including all former slaves—were citizens of the United States. In 1868, the nation as a whole would reaffirm this position by ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, which permanently reversed Dred Scott. At that point, blacks would, to some degree, have the same Constitutional rights as whites, even if it would take another century to insure that the laws throughout the nation were applied equally to all people.
- Allen, Austin. 2006. Origins of the Dred Scott Case: Jacksonian Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court, 1837–1857. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Fehrenbacher, Don E. 1978. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Finkelman, Paul. 1997. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History With Documents. Boston: Bedford Books.
- 2006. ‘‘Dred Scott v. Sandford.’’ In The Public Debate over Controversial Supreme Court Decisions, edited by Melvin I. Urofsky, 24–33. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- Paul Finkelman