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Dred Scott decision: 1857

For more than ten years Dred Scott, an illiterate slave assisted by northern abolitionist lawyers, has been in litigation against his owners, the family of an army surgeon who bought Scott in the slave state of Missouri in 1833. From 1834 the surgeon took Scott with him on his subsequent postings, first briefly to Illinois and then to the region of Kansas and Nebraska which was declared a non-slavery area under the Missouri compromise of 1820. By 1838 master and slave were back in Missouri.

The case put forward by Scott's lawyers is that the time spent by Scott in 'free' regions automatically liberates him. They argue to the courts that he and his family should now be free, even though living in a slave state.


The case goes against Scott in the supreme court of Missouri, and is taken in 1856 to the federal supreme court. The subject is extremely topical and the judgement is awaited with enormous interest. This is a presidential election year. The Republican party, with slavery the main plank in their platform, is fielding a candidate for the first time.

The supreme court judges, divided on the issue, delay their decision until March 1857. They then come down against Scott by a majority of seven to two. The chief justice, Roger Taney, justifies the decision on several different grounds.


One of his arguments is that the Constitution, as drafted, does not regard either slaves or free African-Americans as citizens. Therefore Scott does not have the right of an American citizen to sue in the courts.

More controversial (at the time) is the opinion that congress has limited power to legislate for the territories, particularly in relation to property - in this case slaves. On this basis the Missouri compromise was illegal and is irrelevant to the case. This rejection of the cherished principle of the Missouri compromise (already set aside in practice by the Kansas-Nebraska Act) is a red rag to the anti-slavery factions in the north.


With hindsight the Dred Scott decision can be seen as an important staging post on the way to the American Civil War. But in local terms it ends more happily.

By 1857 Scott's owner is a citizen of New York (the brother of the widow of the army surgeon) who has no great interest in owning a Missouri slave. After the supreme court judgement he frees Scott, who finds employment as a hotel porter in St Louis.


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