#BlackHistoryMonth – Dred Scott

Black History Month is all about amplifying black lives, voices, and experiences throughout American history. However, BHM also serves as a necessary reminder of America’s harsh relationship with racism, inequality, and discrimination to always understand where we started and how far we must go. Today we discuss Dred Scott, whose case sparked such disagreement that it partially influenced the nation to fight (literally) for freedom in the Civil War. Furthermore, it thoroughly influenced Congress to amend the constitution to reflect and protect all black individuals and their fundamental rights.
In 1820, as western expansion commenced, conflict arose over which states would be free states and which would be slave states. The Missouri compromise helped settle some of the dispute: Maine would be a free state, Missouri a slave state and anything else above the 36º 30’ latitude line would be free, and anything below that line would be up to those territories to decide. Southerners and northerners began to wonder how this would play out. What if a slave had crossed from slave territory to free territory? Enter: Dred Scott, a slave who accompanied his owner to Wisconsin territory, aka free. Afterwards, they returned to Missouri, a slave state. Dred Scott sued his owner seeking his freedom. He claimed that his entrance into free territory deemed him a free man, like the Missouri Compromise says! The lowest court in Missouri agreed with Dred Scott! However, when Dred Scott’s slave owner appealed to Missouri’s highest court, they disagreed and decided that Dred Scott’s slave status reattached when he reentered Missouri. It’s not over though. Upon Dred Scott’s loss in state court, he decides to bring a new suit in federal court, which makes its way to the United States Supreme Court. Dred Scott argued again, that the Missouri Compromise allowed him to be free because he was on free territory! The court again disagreed with Dred Scott. They said that actually, the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional: also known as, crumple it up and throw it in the trash! The court said it was unconstitutional because it violated a provision in the constitution that protects people’s property. Essentially the court said that Dred Scott, as a slave, was considered the property of his owner, and when the Missouri Compromise attempted to revoke this property, that violated the constitution.
A note on Federal Courts & Diversity:
Dred Scott believed that because he was from Missouri, and because his slave owner was a citizen of New York that “Diversity” was satisfied. Diversity is a method one can use to bring their suit in federal court, as opposed to state court when the plaintiff and defendant are citizens of different states. However, in one of the most embarrassing parts of the Dred Scott decision, the judges decided that there actually was no “diversity” here because plaintiff and defendant needed to be citizens of different states, and Dred Scott, as a black individual, regardless of whether or not he was free, was no citizen at all. The court basically told Dred Scott that because he was black, had no right being in federal court. At all.
Dred Scott & the Decision’s Legacy
The Dred Scott decision has been widely denounced over time: “unquestionably, our court’s worst decision ever,” “stands first in any list of the worst Supreme Court decisions,” “the court’s greatest self-inflicted wound,” and “universally condemned the as the U.S. Supreme Court’s worst decision ever”. After the Civil War the Dred Scott decision in its entirety was voided by the ratification of the 13th and 14th amendment, abolishing slavery, and guaranteeing citizenship for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States…” respectfully.
Historical Fact: Dred Scott and his family were formally emancipated by his owner just three months after the Supreme Court denied them their freedom.