Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856)
In a decision that later was nullified by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Supreme Court held that former slaves did not have standing in federal courts because they lacked U.S. citizenship, even after they were freed.
Dred Scott, a slave born in Virginia, was purchased by John Emerson in Missouri in 1820. Emerson then traveled with Scott to Fort Armstrong, Illinois and from there to Fort Snelling, Wisconsin. Both Illinois and Wisconsin prohibited slavery. Scott and his wife stayed in Wisconsin when Emerson returned to Missouri. Since Emerson leased their services to other white people in Wisconsin, he violated the Missouri Compromise as well as other laws against slavery in that region.
When Emerson moved to Louisiana, Scott and his wife joined them. Their daughter was born in a steamboat on the Mississippi River, which technically made her a free person because she was born in free territory. Emerson soon returned to Wisconsin, but his wife took Scott and his wife back to Missouri when Scott served in the Seminole War. Emerson ultimately died in Iowa, and his widow inherited Scott, whose services she continued to lease to others. Emerson's widow rejected an attempt by Scott to buy his family's freedom, which led to legal action.
Scott argued that his wife and he were legally emancipated because of their residence in free territories. Missouri courts had ruled in favor of similarly positioned slaves, but his case was initially dismissed on a minor procedural ground. Eventually, the jury did rule in his favor, but Emerson's widow appealed. She had moved to Massachusetts by then and given Scott to her brother, John F.A. Sandford. Upon appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed earlier decisions in this area and ruled that Scott was not required to be emancipated because he had failed to sue for his freedom when he was living in a free state.
When Sandford moved to New York, Scott resumed his legal action there in federal court, since diversity jurisdiction applied.
- Roger Brooke Taney
- James Moore Wayne
- John Catron
- Peter Vivian Daniel
- Samuel Nelson
- Robert Cooper Grier
- John Archibald Campbell
Taney argued that the Court did not have jurisdiction to hear a case brought by Scott. Diversity jurisdiction is limited to cases involving citizens of different states, and Taney suggested that Scott was not a citizen of any state because he was a descendant of a slave. In fact, the opinion suggested that not even a freed slave could bring an action in federal court under diversity jurisdiction because of his or her African descent. Taney concluded that the drafters of the Constitution saw African-Americans as inferior and would not have intended to extend this right to them. He suggested that extending constitutional protections to African-Americans, which would be necessary if they were deemed to be citizens, would result in the socially unacceptable consequences of giving them the right to travel, free speech, and the right to bear arms. Since Taney had found that jurisdiction was lacking, he could dismiss the case on procedural grounds. However, he continued to address the substantive issue, perhaps in response to pressure from President James Buchanan, who wanted a conclusive resolution to disputes over slavery. He reached the conclusion that the Missouri Compromise and its designation of certain states as free states could not be enforced because the territory that it encompassed was not within the Northwest Territories, to which the federal government's power to create state governments was limited. Taney also ruled that slaves were property under the Fifth Amendment, and any law that would deprive a slave owner of that property was unconstitutional. The opinion showed deference to the government and courts of Missouri, which had held that moving to a free state did not make Scott emancipated. Taney accepted this view without much examination, since he felt that federal courts lacked jurisdiction in the first place.
- Samuel Nelson (Author)
- Robert Cooper Grier
Nelson essentially reached the same conclusion as Taney, but he based his view solely on the merits of the case because he felt that jurisdiction was proper.
- Benjamin Robbins Curtis (Author)
Criticizing Taney's decision for addressing substance once it had found a lack of jurisdiction, Curtis pointed out that invalidating the Missouri Compromise was not necessary to resolving the case. He also questioned Taney's belief that the Founders were steadfastly opposed to anti-slavery laws.
- John McLean (Author)
McLean echoed Curtis in finding that the majority had improperly reviewed the substance of the claim when it should have been limited to procedure. He also argued that men of African descent could be citizens, since they already had the right to vote in five states.
- James Moore Wayne (Author)
- John Catron (Author)
- Peter Vivian Daniel (Author)
- Robert Cooper Grier (Author)
- John Archibald Campbell (Author)
This decision ranks among the most infamous in the history of the Supreme Court, but it is important to remember that it simply rationalized the prevailing social system in a large part of the United States at the time. Taney's florid rhetoric seems an attempt to conceal the flimsy logic of his argument, which was discarded within a few decades and no longer carries any weight.
Fortunately for Scott, one of the sons of his first master purchased his freedom shortly after this decision. He worked in a hotel in St. Louis until his death later in the 1850s. His widow survived into the 1870s, witnessing the defeat of Taney's vision by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
U.S. Supreme CourtScott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 19 How. 393 393 (1856)
Scott v. Sandford
60 U.S. (19 How.) 393
1. Upon a writ of error to a Circuit Court of the United States, the transcript of the record of all the proceedings in the case is brought before the court, and is open to inspection and revision.
2. When a plea to the jurisdiction, in abatement, is overruled by the court upon demurrer, and the defendant pleads in bar, and upon these pleas the final judgment of the court is in his favor -- if the plaintiff brings a writ of error, the judgment of the court upon the plea in abatement is before this court, although it was in favor of the plaintiff -- and if the court erred in overruling it, the judgment must be reversed, and a mandate issued to the Circuit Court to dismiss the case for want of jurisdiction.
3. In the Circuit Courts of the United States, the record must show that the case is one in which, by the Constitution and laws of the United States, the court had jurisdiction -- and if this does not appear, and the judgment must be reversed by this court -- and the parties cannot be consent waive the objection to the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court.
4. A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a "citizen" within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.
5. When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were not numbered among its "people or citizens." Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them. And not being "citizens" within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States, and the Circuit Court has not jurisdiction in such a suit.
6. The only two clauses in the Constitution which point to this race treat them as persons whom it was morally lawfully to deal in as articles of property and to hold as slaves.
7. Since the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, no State can by any subsequent law make a foreigner or any other description of persons citizens of
the United States, nor entitle them to the rights and privileges secured to citizens by that instrument.
8. A State, by its laws passed since the adoption of the Constitution, may put a foreigner or any other description of persons upon a footing with its own citizens as to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by them within its dominion and by its laws. But that will not make him a citizen of the United States, nor entitle him to sue in its courts, nor to any of the privileges and immunities of a citizen in another State.
9. The change in public opinion and feeling in relation to the African race which has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution cannot change its construction and meaning, and it must be construed and administered now according to its true meaning and intention when it was formed and adopted.
10. The plaintiff having admitted, by his demurrer to the plea in abatement, that his ancestors were imported from Africa and sold as slaves, he is not a citizen of the State of Missouri according to the Constitution of the United States, and was not entitled to sue in that character in the Circuit Court.
11. This being the case, the judgment of the court below in favor of the plaintiff on the plea in abatement was erroneous.
1. But if the plea in abatement is not brought up by this writ of error, the objection to the citizenship of the plaintiff is still apparent on the record, as he himself, in making out his case, states that he is of African descent, was born a slave, and claims that he and his family became entitled to freedom by being taken by their owner to reside in a Territory where slavery is prohibited by act of Congress, and that, in addition to this claim, he himself became entitled to freedom by being taken to Rock Island, in the State of Illinois, and being free when he was brought back to Missouri, he was, by the laws of that State, a citizen.
2. If, therefore, the facts he states do not give him or his family a right to freedom, the plaintiff is still a slave, and not entitled to sue as a "citizen," and the judgment of the Circuit Court was erroneous on that ground also, without any reference to the plea in abatement.
3. The Circuit Court can give no judgment for plaintiff or defendant in a case where it has not jurisdiction, no matter whether there be a plea in abatement or not. And unless it appears upon the face of the record, when brought here by writ of error, that the Circuit Court had jurisdiction, the judgment must be reversed.
The case of Capron v. Van Noorden, 2 Cranch 126, examined, and the principles thereby decided reaffirmed.
4. When the record, as brought here by writ of error, does not show that the Circuit Court had jurisdiction, this court has jurisdiction to review and correct the error like any other error in the court below. It does not and cannot dismiss the case for want of jurisdiction here, for that would leave the erroneous judgment of the court below in full force, and the party injured without remedy. But it must reverse the judgment and, as in any other case of reversal, send a mandate to the Circuit Court to conform its judgment to the opinion of this court.
5. The difference of the jurisdiction in this court in the cases of writs of error to State courts and to Circuit Courts of the United States pointed out, and the mistakes made as to the jurisdiction of this court in the latter case by confounding it with its limited jurisdiction in the former.
6. If the court reverses a judgment upon the ground that it appears by a particular part of the record that the Circuit Court had not jurisdiction, it does not take away the jurisdiction of this court to examine into and correct, by a reversal of the judgment, any other errors, either as to the jurisdiction or any other matter, where it appears from other parts of the record that the Circuit Court had fallen into error. On the contrary, it is the daily and familiar practice of this court to reverse on several grounds where more than one error appears to have been committed. And the error of a Circuit Court in its jurisdiction
stands on the same ground, and is to be treated in the same manner as any other error upon whish its judgment is founded.
7. The decision, therefore, that the judgment of the Circuit Court upon the plea in abatement is erroneous is no reason why the alleged error apparent in the exception should not also be examined, and the judgment reversed on that ground also, if it discloses a want of jurisdiction in the Circuit Court.
8. It is often the duty of this court, after having decided that a particular decision of the Circuit Court was erroneous, to examine into other alleged errors and to correct them if they are found to exist. And this has been uniformly done by this court when the questions are in any degree connected with the controversy and the silence of the court might create doubts which would lead to further useless litigation.
1. The facts upon which the plaintiff relies did not give him his freedom and make him a citizen of Missouri.
2. The clause in the Constitution authorizing Congress to make all needful rules and regulations for the government of the territory and other property of the United States applies only to territory within the chartered limits of some one of the States when they were colonies of Great Britain, and which was surrendered by the British Government to the old Confederation of the States in the treaty of peace. It does not apply to territory acquired by the present Federal Government by treaty or conquest from a foreign nation.
3. The United States, under the present Constitution, cannot acquire territory to be held as a colony, to be governed at its will and pleasure. But it may acquire territory which, at the time, has not a population that fits it to become a State, and may govern it as a Territory until it has a population which, in the judgment of Congress, entitled it to be admitted as a State of the Union.
4. During the time it remains a Territory, Congress may legislate over it within the scope of its constitutional powers in relation to citizens of the United States, and may establish a Territorial Government, and the form of the local Government must be regulated by the discretion of Congress, but with powers not exceeding those which Congress itself, by the Constitution, is authorized to exercise over citizens of the United States in respect to the rights of persons or rights of property.
1. The territory thus acquired is acquired by the people of the United States for their common and equal benefit through their agent and trustee, the Federal Government. Congress can exercise no power over the rights of persons or property of a citizen in the Territory which is prohibited by the Constitution. The Government and the citizen, whenever the Territory is open to settlement, both enter it with their respective rights defined and limited by the Constitution.
2. Congress have no right to prohibit the citizens of any particular State or States from taking up their home there while it permits citizens of other States to do so. Nor has it a right to give privileges to one class of citizens which it refuses to another. The territory is acquired for their equal and common benefit, and if open to any, it must be open to all upon equal and the same terms.
3. Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property which the Constitution of the United States recognises as property.
4. The Constitution of the United States recognises slaves as property, and pledges the Federal Government to protect it. And Congress cannot exercise any more authority over property of that description than it may constitutionally exercise over property of any other kind.
5. The act of Congress, therefore, prohibiting a citizen of the United States from
taking with him his slaves when he removes to the Territory in question to reside is an exercise of authority over private property which is not warranted by the Constitution, and the removal of the plaintiff by his owner to that Territory gave him no title to freedom.
1. The plaintiff himself acquired no title to freedom by being taken by his owner to Rock Island, in Illinois, and brought back to Missouri. This court has heretofore decided that the status or condition of a person of African descent depended on the laws of the State in which he resided.
2. It has been settled by the decisions of the highest court in Missouri that, by the laws of that State, a slave does not become entitled to his freedom where the owner takes him to reside in a State where slavery is not permitted and afterwards brings him back to Missouri.
Conclusion. It follows that it is apparent upon the record that the court below erred in its judgment on the plea in abatement, and also erred in giving judgment for the defendant, when the exception shows that the plaintiff was not a citizen of the United States. And the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction, either in the cases stated in the plea in abatement or in the one stated in the exception, its judgment in favor of the defendant is erroneous, and must be reversed.
This case was brought up, by writ of error, from the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Missouri.
It was an action of trespass vi et armis instituted in the Circuit Court by Scott against Sandford.
Prior to the institution of the present suit, an action was brought by Scott for his freedom in the Circuit Court of St. Louis county (State court), where there was a verdict and judgment in his favor. On a writ of error to the Supreme Court of the State, the judgment below was reversed and the case remanded to the Circuit Court, where it was continued to await the decision of the case now in question.
The declaration of Scott contained three counts: one, that Sandford had assaulted the plaintiff; one, that he had assaulted Harriet Scott, his wife; and one, that he had assaulted Eliza Scott and Lizzie Scott, his children.
Sandford appeared, and filed the following plea:
"DRED SCOTT )"
"v. ) Plea to the Jurisdiction of the Court."
"JOHN F. A. SANDFORD )"
"APRIL TERM, 1854."
"And the said John F. A. Sandford, in his own proper person, comes and says that this court ought not to have or take further cognizance of the action aforesaid, because he says that said cause of action and each and every of them (if any such have accrued to the said Dred Scott) accrued to the said Dred Scott out of the jurisdiction of this court, and exclusively within the jurisdiction of the courts of the State of Missouri, for that, to-wit: the said plaintiff, Dred Scott, is not a citizen of the State of Missouri, as alleged in his declaration, because
he is a negro of African descent; his ancestors were of pure African blood, and were brought into this country and sold as negro slaves, and this the said Sandford is ready to verify. Wherefore, he prays judgment whether this court can or will take further cognizance of the action aforesaid."
"JOHN F. A. SANDFORD"
To this plea there was a demurrer in the usual form, which was argued in April, 1854, when the court gave judgment that the demurrer should be sustained.
In May, 1854, the defendant, in pursuance of an agreement between counsel, and with the leave of the court, pleaded in bar of the action:
1. Not guilty.
2. That the plaintiff was a negro slave, the lawful property of the defendant, and, as such, the defendant gently laid his hands upon him, and thereby had only restrained him, as the defendant had a right to do.
3. That with respect to the wife and daughters of the plaintiff, in the second and third counts of the declaration mentioned, the defendant had, as to them, only acted in the same manner and in virtue of the same legal right.
In the first of these pleas, the plaintiff joined issue, and to the second and third filed replications alleging that the defendant, of his own wrong and without the cause in his second and third pleas alleged, committed the trespasses, &c.
The counsel then filed the following agreed statement of facts, viz:
In the year 1834, the plaintiff was a negro slave belonging to Dr. Emerson, who was a surgeon in the army of the United States. I n that year, 1834, said Dr. Emerson took the plaintiff from the State of Missouri to the military post at Rock Island, in the State of Illinois, and held him there as a slave until the month of April or May, 1836. At the time last mentioned, said Dr. Emerson removed the plaintiff from said military post at Rock Island to the military post at Fort Snelling, situate on the west bank of the Mississippi river, in the Territory known as Upper Louisiana, acquired by the United States of France, and situate north of the latitude of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north, and north of the State of Missouri. Said Dr. Emerson held the plaintiff in slavery at said Fort Snelling, from said last-mentioned date until the year 1838.
In the year 1835, Harriet, who is named in the second count of the plaintiff's declaration, was the negro slave of Major Taliaferro, who belonged to the army of the United States.
In that year, 1835, said Major Taliaferro took said Harriet to said Fort Snelling, a military post, situated as hereinbefore stated, and kept her there as a slave until the year 1836, and then sold and delivered her as a slave at said Fort Snelling unto the said Dr. Emerson hereinbefore named. Said Dr. Emerson held said Harriet in slavery at said Fort Snelling until the year 1838.
In the year 1836, the plaintiff and said Harriet at said Fort Snelling, with the consent of said Dr. Emerson, who then claimed to be their master and owner, intermarried, and took each other for husband and wife. Eliza and Lizzie, named in the third count of the plaintiff's declaration, are the fruit of that marriage. Eliza is about fourteen years old, and was born on board the steamboat Gipsey, north of the north line of the State of Missouri, and upon the river Mississippi. Lizzie is about seven years old, and was born in the State of Missouri, at the military post called Jefferson Barracks.
In the year 1838, said Dr. Emerson removed the plaintiff and said Harriet and their said daughter Eliza from said Fort Snelling to the State of Missouri, where they have ever since resided.
Before the commencement of this suit, said Dr. Emerson sold and conveyed the plaintiff, said Harriet, Eliza, and Lizzie, to the defendant, as slaves, and the defendant has ever since claimed to hold them and each of them as slaves.
At the times mentioned in the plaintiff's declaration, the defendant, claiming to be owner as aforesaid, laid his hands upon said plaintiff, Harriet, Eliza, and Lizzie, and imprisoned them, doing in this respect, however, no more than what he might lawfully do if they were of right his slaves at such times.
Further proof may be given on the trial for either party.
It is agreed that Dred Scott brought suit for his freedom in the Circuit Court of St. Louis county; that there was a verdict and judgment in his favor; that, on a writ of error to the Supreme Court, the judgment below was reversed, and the same remanded to the Circuit Court, where it has been continued to await the decision of this case.
In May, 1854, the cause went before a jury, who found the following verdict, viz:
"As to the first issue joined in this case, we of the jury find the defendant not guilty; and as to the issue secondly above joined, we of the jury find that before and at the time when, &c., in the first count mentioned, the said Dred Scott was a negro slave, the lawful property of the defendant; and as to the issue thirdly above joined, we, the jury, find that before and at the time when, &c., in the second and third counts mentioned, the said Harriet, wife of
said Dred Scott, and Eliza and Lizzie, the daughters of the said Dred Scott, were negro slaves, the lawful property of the defendant."
Whereupon, the court gave judgment for the defendant.
After an ineffectual motion for a new trial, the plaintiff filed the following bill of exceptions.
On the trial of this cause by the jury, the plaintiff, to maintain the issues on his part, read to the jury the following agreed statement of facts, (see agreement above.) No further testimony was given to the jury by either party. Thereupon the plaintiff moved the court to give to the jury the following instruction, viz:
"That, upon the facts agreed to by the parties, they ought to find for the plaintiff. The court refused to give such instruction to the jury, and the plaintiff, to such refusal, then and there duly excepted."
The court then gave the following instruction to the jury, on motion of the defendant:
"The jury are instructed, that upon the facts in this case, the law is with the defendant."
The plaintiff excepted to this instruction.
Upon these exceptions, the case came up to this court.