[Black History] Dred Scott v. Sandford

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), was a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves (or their descendants, whether or not they were slaves) were not protected by the Constitution and could never be U.S. citizens. The court also held that the U.S. Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories and that, because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Furthermore, the Court ruled that slaves, as chattels or private property, could not be taken away from their owners without due process. The Supreme Court’s decision was written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia between 1795 and 1800. In 1830, he followed his owners to Missouri. In 1832, U.S. Army Major John Emerson, stationed outside of St. Louis, purchased Scott.

Over the next 12 years, Emerson took Scott along to new assignments at Fort Armstrong, Illinois, and later to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory (present-day Minnesota). Illinois, a free state, had been free as a territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and had prohibited slavery in its constitution in 1819 when it was admitted as a state. The federal government had also prohibited slavery within the Wisconsin Territory in the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and had reaffirmed the ban in 1836 with the Wisconsin Enabling Act. Additionally, while at Fort Snelling, Emerson allowed Scott to marry, which slaves were generally not allowed to do under common law, as slaves had no right to enter into legal contracts.

Scott and his wife with the aid of abolitionist attorneys worked to sue for their family on the basis of their residence in Illinois which was a free state. The attempts were unsuccessful as the US Supreme Court eventually ruled that:

Scott was not a “citizen of a state” within the meaning of the United States Constitution, as that term was understood at the time the Constitution was adopted, and therefore not able to bring suit in federal court.

Consequently, no State, since the adoption of the Constitution, can by naturalizing an alien invest him with the rights and privileges secured to a citizen of a State under the Federal Government, although, so far as the State alone was concerned, he would undoubtedly be entitled to the rights of a citizen, and clothed with all the rights and immunities which the Constitution and laws of the State attached to that character.

According to the Court, the authors of the Constitution had viewed all blacks asbeings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.

Black History. It Ain’t All Good.

-Be.

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  • Mo the Educator

    Reply Reply February 11, 2011

    One of the most important decisions in American history. The Supreme Court finally interpreted the Constitution as the Founding Fathers intended: that Black people were NOT considered and never were intended to be American citizens. Those ‘self-evident truths’ about ‘men being created equal’ did not include Black men. Or women. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the Court opinion, in which he said:

    “It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

    The interesting portion of this is that despite the patriarchal and condescending references to Black people, I agree wholeheartedly with the Court’s interpretation of what the Constitution’s writers intended. The “Founding Fathers”, though they included the process of amendment in order to ensure that the Constitution remained a relevant document, did not consider Black people citizens or even full human beings. But in properly interpreting the will of the Founding Fathers, the Supreme Court improperly interpreted the humanity of a race.

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