When Blacks were Denied U. S. Citizenship: The Dred Scott Case of 1857

The Tombstone of Dred Scott, circa 1799 — 1858

Litigation for Freedom from Slavery

Dred Scott, who was a slave in Missouri, gained his freedom by moving to the free-state of Illinois from 1833 to 1843 and the free territory of Wisconsin. Later in his life, he moved back to the slave-state of Missouri. When he did, he became a slave again.

In 1846-1847, he unsuccessfully sued Mrs. Emerson (his owner) for his freedom. In another trial in 1850, the jury’s decision was that Scott should be a free man.1 Mrs. Emerson, disagreeing with the decision, made an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. In 1852, the court overturned the lower court’s decision, again making Scott a slave. In 1852-1853, John Sanford, Emerson’s brother, took over the family estate. Scott filed another suit for his freedom in the Federal Court of St. Louis, losing the case to Sanford.

The Supreme Court’s Majority Opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857

In 1856, Scott and his lawyers appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, seeking his freedom. John Sandford, Scott’s master, argued that Scott was “a negro of African descent, whose ancestors were of pure African blood and who were brought into this country and sold as slaves.”2 Therefore, no slave was a citizen of Missouri, much less the United States itself.

Essentially, the Supreme Court declared that a slave, a black man or woman, (Dred Scott had a wife named Harriet and two daughters, Eliza and Lizzy), was the property of his or her owner and, therefore, neither a person with human rights nor a citizen of the United States. On 6 March 1857, Chief Justice Robert Taney gave the majority opinion of the court, saying that slaves

“are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”3

The Racist Views of the Justices

Taney does not even call blacks “human beings.” He says that they are

“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 the Government might choose to grant them.”4

Taney becomes even more offensive when, referring to the sentence “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, he says,

“[T]he enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.”5

The Supreme Court concludes its majority opinion, noting,

“Upon the whole, therefore, it is the judgment of this court that it appears by the record before us that the plaintiff [Dred Scott] in error is not a citizen of Missouri in the sense in which that word is used in the Constitution.”6

The Injustice of the Court’s Opinion

To continue to enslave blacks, the Supreme Court had to dehumanize or depersonalize them, describe them as less than persons and, therefore, with no human rights. In essence, the court ruled that blacks or slaves, even freed slaves, are not persons but property. Of course, as property, they were owned, used and could even be abused by their masters or slave-holders. The court, then, justified slavery, making it the law of the United States.

Why the Court Could Not Reach an Unbiased Decision

It was extremely difficult, but not impossible, for the Supreme Court to give a just ruling in the Dred Scott Case. Chief Justice Taney was a “staunch supporter of slavery.”7 The court itself was pro-slavery. Most of the Justices had no opposition to the extension of slavery in the United States. Seven Justices ruled against Scott and two dissented, disagreeing with the decision. The Justices could not look beyond their bias toward blacks and evaluate Scott’s case objectively.

The Reversal of the Supreme Court’s Error

The Dred Scott Case is an example of how the United States Supreme Court can and does err in its majority opinions, thus violating human rights. The injustice of the court’s decision was eventually overturned by two amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The first is the 13th Amendment, Section 1, which abolished slavery, saying,

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”8

The second is the 14th Amendment, Section 1, which says,

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States….”9

The primary purpose of the 14th Amendment “was to make former slaves citizens of both the United States and the state in which they lived and to protect them from state-imposed discrimination.”10

The Philosophical Difference between Persons and Possessions

One can own an animal, such as a horse, cat or dog. However, an African American, a black human being, is not a domesticated animal but a person. One person cannot own another through purchasing or buying him or her. The reason is that only things can be purchased with money. That is why they are called “possessions.” But a person is not a thing and, therefore, should neither be bought nor sold. A person, then, regardless of the color of his or her skin, is not a possession, much less a piece of property.

The Philosophical Difference between Ends and Means

To buy a human being, to own a person, in order to use him or her, is the attempt to turn a person into a tool or instrument to be used for the benefit of others. A human being is not merely an instrument of production. No human being exists merely to be used, that is, to be taken advantage of by others. Such a relationship reduces a person to a means to an end. On the contrary, a man or woman exists for his or her own sake. A person, then, is an end, that is, has, first or foremost, value in himself or herself, not merely for other human beings. 


  1. Dred Scott Chronology. 1-3 March 2007. 150th Anniversary of the Dred Scott Case. Washington University in St. Louis. [Web:] http://digital.wustl.edu/d/dre/chronology.html [Date of access: 20 June 2021].
  2. Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393. 1857. Cornell University Law School. [Web:] https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/60/393 [Date of access: 20 June 2021].
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Africans in America, Part 4 – 1831-1865, Judgment Day: Dred Scott Case. 1857. PBS Online. [Web] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2933.html [Date of access: 20 June 2021].
  8. Constitution of the United States. Amendments 11-27. National Archives. [Web:] https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/amendments-11-27 [Date of access: 20 June 2021].
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.

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