Dred Scott was born into slavery in Southampton, Virginia, about 1795. He unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters, in the Dred Scott v. Sandford [Scott’s owner] case of 1857. It is widely viewed as the worst decision by the United States Supreme Court. It held that
… a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen, and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court, and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States.
The essence of the ruling held that the 3/5ths African Americans were not “persons” as described in the Constitution but private property, persons, or more precisely chattel, without a country. The 7–2 decision, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, was only the second time that the Supreme Court had ruled an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional.
The decision immediately spurred vehement dissent from anti-slavery elements in the North and exacerbated tensions among the sates leading up to the Civil War. The decision was functionally superseded by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1868, which gave African Americans full citizenship.
Justice John McLean dissented, writing that there was no basis for the claim that blacks could not be citizens. According to McLean, at the time of the ratification of the Constitution, black men could vote in five of the thirteen states. This made them citizens not only of their states but of the United States. The other dissenter, Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, attacked much of the Supreme Court’s decision on the ground that once the court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott’s case, it must simply dismiss the action, and not pass judgment on the merits of the claims.
Supporting the decision, the Richmond Enquirer opined,
The “nation” has achieved a triumph, “sectionalism” has been rebuked, and abolitionism has been staggered and stunned. Another supporting pillar has been added to our institutions; . . . a patriotic principle has been pronounced; a great, national, conservative, union saving sentiment has been proclaimed.
Despite a civil war and a Constitutional amendment, the national community only 28 years later forged a new legal principle – “separate but equal” – to diminish the rights and freedoms of African Americans. At the turn of the century, states enacted Jim Crow statutes to insure that diminution and served upon all a legacy that continues to the present.
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