Prologue to the Civil War: The Dred Scott Decision

In 1846, an elderly slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom in a Missouri court, claiming it was his right after living with his late master in free states for seven years. It was the first step of an 11-year legal journey that ultimately challenged the authority of the US Supreme Court itself.

After losing the first round, Scott's attorneys took the case to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1850, but lost again. When his case reached the US Supreme Court in 1857, it quickly became a flashpoint in a nation bitterly divided over slavery.

On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that Scott was still a slave because he had brought suit in Missouri, a slave state. Furthermore, Chief Justice Roger Taney insisted that slaves and their descendants were not US citizens because the Constitution had been written when blacks "had for more than a century been regarded as beings of an inferior far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Making matters worse, Taney declared that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, preventing slavery from expanding into new territories, was unconstitutional. The backlash was immediate and intense. Tens of thousands of Northerners who had tolerated slavery as long as it was confined to the South suddenly became active abolitionists, determined that slavery would not be extended into the West.

The Supreme Court's decision further polarized Americans, won countless sympathizers to the anti-slavery camp, and pushed the nation closer to civil war. Scott himself, however, was fortunate; three months after the Supreme Court ruling, his abusive mistress sold him back to his original owners, who freed not only Scott but his wife and two daughters. He died a year later, a free man.


Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: November 6, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse