One of the most important and controversial Supreme Court decisions in American history was the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Dred Scott was an enslaved African who had been taken to the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin Territory and, later, back to Missouri, a slave state. In 1846 Scott sued the man who held him in servitude on the grounds that he had achieved his freedom by residing in free territory. When the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against him, Scott sued in the federal Circuit Court in Missouri. When that court also ruled against him, Scott’s attorney appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Robert Taney wrote the Court’s opinion, which reached several conclusions. Two were explosive in their significance:
- Blacks, whether slave or free, could not be citizens of the United States. Individual states might grant them state citizenship, but they could not enjoy the rights and protections of national citizenship under the Constitution. Taney reached this conclusion on the ground that blacks were not recognized as U.S. citizens when the Constitution was ratified.
- The federal government did not have the right to exclude slavery from the territories. Enslaved Africans, Taney argued, were property and property rights were protected under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. The right to own slaves, in other words, was protected by the Constitution. A slaveholder, therefore, had the right to take enslaved Africans into the territories.
Taney hoped that by invoking the authority and prestige of the Supreme Court in so definitive a ruling, he could peacefully resolve the conflict over slavery and avoid a civil war. His opinion, however, had exactly the opposite effect. Some believe that the Dred Scott decision was one of the principal causes of the Civil War.