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Dred Scott Decision

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Dred Scott Decision

In 1857, the Supreme Court took a stand on the issue of slave status. A Missouri slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived in Illinois and Minnesota—free territories—for four years. The Court ruled against him, stating that slave status traveled with the person, and that Scott did not carry free status back to Missouri with him when he returned there. Chief Justice Roger Taney added that he believed the framers of the Constitution had perceived Africans as “an inferior order, and unfit associates for the white race” and had never intended the Constitution to apply to them. Taney went on to argue that since slaves were property, and the Fifth Amendment prevented anyone from being deprived of property without due process of law, any law against slavery was unconstitutional. The Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional because it robbed slave owners of their property by conferring freedom on any slaves who were taken into free territory. In practice, this decision meant that Congress had no right to ban slavery anywhere; it had no power to contain the spread of slavery westward or even into the North.

Dred Scott v. Sanford had several immediate effects. First, the newly elected President James Buchanan refused to recognize the free-state government in Kansas. Second, westerners and northerners alike reacted with dismay to the ruling that slavery could expand throughout the country. The West became increasingly closely connected with the North, both economically and politically; thus, the South grew more isolated from the rest of the nation.

Frederick Douglass summed up the antislavery reaction to the Dred Scott decision:

I ask, then, any man to read the Constitution, and tell me where, if he can, in what particular that instrument affords the slightest sanction of slavery? . . .

This very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the downfall and complete overthrow of the whole slave system.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

A House Divided Practice Test

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