Dred Scott v. Sandford

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The court case Dred Scott v. Sandford fueled tensions between the North and the South that eventually led to the American Civil War.

Dred Scott was born into slavery. During the 1830s, Scott's owner, a surgeon in the United States Army, took Scott to Illinois and Minnesota. At this time, slavery was illegal in Illinois and Minnesota was a free territory. In Minnesota, Scott married an enslaved woman, and she gave birth to a daughter. Scott's owner eventually returned to Missouri, a slave state, with Scott and his family.

Upon returning to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom as well as that of his wife and daughter. He contended that his owner had freed him by taking him to a free state and then to a free territory. The same was true for Scott's family members. The case, known as Dred Scott v. Sandford, entered the Missouri legal system in 1846. Scott won the initial case, but his owner appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the master. In 1857, the case reached the United States Supreme Court.

On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court issued its ruling. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion of the court. He declared the Missouri Compromise to be illegal. According to Taney, the federal government did not have the power to limit where citizens could take their property, including slaves. Many in the U.S. believed enslaved people to be a form of property.

Taney and a majority of justices also argued that the case should never have come before the Supreme Court because Scott was not a citizen. The justices in the majority contended that enslaved African Americans were not United States citizens and therefore could not bring lawsuits. Five of the other eight Supreme Court justices shared Taney's view. Of the justices who ruled against Scott, five were Southerners. The one Northern justice who supported Taney was pressured by President James Buchanan to support the majority decision. The three dissenting justices were all Northerners and included John McLean from Ohio.

The Dred Scott v. Sandford case increased the tensions between the North and the South. Since the 1820s, the two regions had compromised on the issue of slavery's expansion. One of the principal agreements had been the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The decision in the Dred Scott case declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, which opened the debate over slavery's expansion once again. The decision helped convince many Northerners, including some Ohioans, that they now resided in a government dominated by Southern slaveholders. The decision also helped divide the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern factions, as many Northern Democrats supported a state's ability to limit slavery within its boundaries. All of these differences helped hasten the coming of the American Civil War.

See Also


  1. Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.  
  2. Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978.  
  3. Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford Books, 1997.  
  4. Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.