12 HISTORIC SUPREME COURT DECISIONS A C-SPAN ORIGINAL TV SERIES
Summary
Case Decided:
March 6, 1857

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) denied blacks citizenship under the Constitution and invalidated the Missouri Compromise, Congress’ effort to balance slave and free states. The Court’s 7-2 ruling held that a black man—no matter free or slave—could never be a U.S. citizen or sue in federal courts.

Born a slave, Dred Scott traveled with his owner, army doctor John Emerson, from the slave state of Missouri to Illinois and Wisconsin (a free state and territory) before returning to St. Louis. Three years after Dr. Emerson died in 1843, Scott sued to win his freedom. He asserted that he became free once he set foot on free soil. Chief Justice Roger Taney, in his opinion for the Supreme Court, stated that Scott’s race barred him from citizenship and legal recourse. The Chief Justice further concluded that it was unconstitutional for an act of Congress to designate free territories. Taney intended his decision to solve the slavery question, but it had the opposite effect, further inflaming tensions between North and South and hastening the Civil War. It is widely regarded as the worst decision in the history of the Supreme Court.

Key Players
Dred Scott

Dred Scott was a Virginia-born slave who attempted to sue for his freedom in federal court. After the Supreme Court ruled against his suit for freedom, Scott, his wife Harriet, and their two children were freed with help from his first owners, the Blows.

Image courtesy of Missouri History Museum, St. Louis
Chief Justice Roger Taney

Roger Taney (March 17 1777 – October 12, 1864) was a wealthy Maryland politician, U.S. attorney general, and secretary of the treasury who became the fifth chief justice of the Supreme Court (1836 – 1864). He was the first Catholic justice. A slave owner in his early life, Taney freed most of his slaves before he assumed any major public office.

Justice Benjamin Curtis

Benjamin Curtis (November 4, 1809 – September 15, 1874) was a Supreme Court justice (1851 – 1857) who dissented in Scott. He was so angered by the Court’s decision that he became the only justice in history to resign on a matter of principle. Curtis was later chief counsel to President Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial.

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