This Day in History: 1857-03-06

The U.S. Supreme Court issues its universally reviled 7–2 decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford (Dred Scott Decision). The case was brought by Dred Scott on behalf of himself, his wife, and their two daughters, who as enslaved people had been taken him from Missouri, which was a slave-holding state, into Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, the laws of which forbade slavery and further provided that enslaved people became free after entering those jurisdictions. When Scott and his family were brought back to Missouri, Scott sued in court for their freedom and claimed that because they had been taken into “free” U.S. territory, they had automatically been freed and were legally no longer enslaved.

In the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the Court ruled that black people “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.” Taney’s opinion included an extended survey of American state and local laws from the time of the Constitution’s drafting in 1787 that purported to show that a “perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery.” Because the Court ruled that Scott was not an American citizen, he was also not a citizen of any state and, accordingly, could never establish the “diversity of citizenship” that Article III of the US Constitution requires for a US federal court to be able to exercise jurisdiction over a case. After ruling on those issues surrounding Scott, Taney continued further and struck down the entire Missouri Compromise as a limitation on slavery that exceeded the US Congress’s constitutional powers.

The decision is universally recognized as the worst Supreme Court decision of all time. The Court’s rulings in Dred Scott were voided by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”