Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)
The period between the ratification of the Constitution and the Civil War was marked by increased efforts for the abolition of slavery. As the country grew, free states began to outnumber slave states in number and population, and abolitionists gained political strength. The Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise created vast new territories which Congress declared must be free states upon admission to the Union. However, slave states remained steadfast in their claim that slavery was a state issue.
Southern states successfully pushed for two new federal fugitive slave laws, gaining national recognition of their legal rights against abolitionists who helped slaves escape. Federal law now required the return of the slaves to their owners.
Into the midst of this turmoil, Dred Scott, a slave, filed a case in Federal Circuit Court in St. Louis, Missouri. Scott claimed that because he had lived for ten years in both a free state (Illinois) and a free territory (Wisconsin), he had been made a free man. His owner did not deny that Scott and his family had resided in Wisconsin and Illinois, but claimed Scott lacked standing to sue, as he was not a citizen of the United States.
The Court looked at the case in the broadest possible terms, using it as a platform to decide, firs, whether Scott had standing to sue; second, whether blacks were entitled to rights as citizens; and finally, whether Congress could restrict the rights of states to decide for themselves if they would enter the union as a slave or free state.
View the Dred Scott DBQ.