If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Dred Scott case and citizenship

How did the Dred Scott case change citizenship in the United States? Created by Kimberly Kutz.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Instructor] In this video, I want to give you a very brief overview of Dred Scott versus Sandford, a Supreme Court decision made in 1857 that had major consequences on the definition of citizenship in the United States. This case was tied up with so many of the questions and problems that plagued America at this time, particularly slavery and the westward expansion of the nation, that it's really easy to go far down into the rabbit hole on this one. But I'm gonna try to restrain myself and just give you the basics you need to know to understand what happened in the case and why it's important. If you do wanna learn more about the Dred Scott case, we have a much more in-depth video on the subject that I'll link to in the description. Okay, so let me set the scene for you. In the mid-1800s, the U.S. government had been trying to balance the desires and the political power of the slave-owning southern states and the free northern states for decades. They kept making compromises to keep the union from falling apart. And one of these was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The geography of this is important. So let's take a look at a map of North America at the time. So here, you can see the free states and territories of the north in green, and the slave-owning states and territories in blue. In 1820, the U.S. government agreed that to maintain the balance of power between slave and free states, as new states entered the union from western lands, new states below this 36 30' line of latitude would be slave states, and above it would be free states. Missouri was the exception, the last slave state to be admitted above that line. Now this compromise worked to stave off political disunion for 30 years. But by the 1850s, when a whole bunch of new states were set to enter the union following Mexico's cession of this land to the United States, the compromise was starting to fall apart. Now what does all this have to do with a man named Dred Scott? Dred was an enslaved man who had been born into slavery in Virginia. His enslaver eventually moved to Missouri and when Dred was about 30 years old, that man sold him to an army doctor named Emerson. Emerson took Dred to Illinois, where Dred married his wife Harriet, who was also enslaved. Emerson went back to Missouri but left Dred and Harriet in Illinois. He sold their services as labors and kept the money that they made, which was definitely illegal because he was practicing slavery in a free state. After a year or so, Emerson moved to Louisiana and married a woman named Eliza Sanford. And Emerson ordered Dred and Harriet to join them. They took a steamboat down to Louisiana and while they were on that steamboat, Harriet gave birth to a baby girl, who was lawfully free since she had been born in free territory. But the Emersons continued to enslave all three of them. Eventually, Dr. Emerson died and his wife Eliza Sanford became the sole owner of the Scott family, who had moved back to Missouri with her. In 1846, Dred tried to purchase their freedom from her, but she refused. So he filed a freedom suit in Missouri court. He pled that since he had been taken into a free state, he should have been freed, and that his family was being held unjustly. The case made its way through the courts over the course of several years. And in the meantime, Eliza transferred ownership of the Scotts to her brother, John Sanford. Since he lived in a different state, it became a federal case, and eventually it came before the Supreme Court. So in 1857, the Supreme Court led at that time by Chief Justice Roger Taney issued its ruling in Dred Scott versus Sandford. You'll notice that Sandford has an extra D in it in the title because it was entered incorrectly in the records and never changed. Taney wrote the majority opinion and he came to two main conclusions. First, that Dred Scott couldn't bring suit in the Supreme Court because he was black and the descendant of enslaved Africans. Taney said that he believed the founders of the United States had never intended for black people, enslaved or free, to have citizenship rights. He made a distinction between black people, who he believed the founders intended for perpetual servitude, and indigenous people, who he thought had been treated as members of separate nations, and therefore could immigrate to the United States if they wanted to. What does this tell you about how Taney was envisioning citizenship and who was eligible to claim it? Now generally in cases when the Supreme Court rules that it doesn't have jurisdiction to hear a case, it stops there. It doesn't go on to give any opinion about the merits of the case itself. But Taney bucked that convention and went on to make a ruling about whether going over that Missouri Compromise line from a slave state to a free one made Dred Scott free. And he said that it didn't and that the whole Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it interfered with slave owners' property rights. Now it's worth mentioning here that the Dred Scott decision is universally regarded as the worst Supreme Court decision of all time. Not just because it was morally bankrupt, but also because it wasn't based on sound reasoning. Taney definitely cherry-picked his evidence about the founders never intending black people to be citizens. For example, he left out the fact that propertied black men could vote in five of the original 13 states at the time of the founding. And that the founders agreed to outlaw slavery in the Northwest Territory, both of which suggests that there wasn't any kind of consensus among the founders about the status of black people or the future of slavery in the west. So what was the impact of this decision? The Supreme Court thought this decision was going to settle the question about slavery and its spread to the west for good, but it ended up completely backfiring. Tensions between the north and south started to reach a fever pitch after this decision. Abraham Lincoln started to gain a national following because of his arguments against this case. And eventually, civil war would erupt when Lincoln became president. After the Civil War, two new amendments to the constitution would undue the Dred Scott decision. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship rights for all people born in the United States. Although Dred Scott lost his case, just two months later, he did get his freedom. He didn't get to enjoy it for long though, since he died just a year later. His wife Harriet and two daughters did survive to see the end of slavery and the 14th Amendment. And his great-great-grandchildren are alive today.