On March 6, 1857, in a small room in the Capital basement, the Supreme Court finally decided a question that Congress had evaded for decades: whether Congress had the power to prohibit slavery in the territories. Repeatedly, Congress had declared that this was a constitutional question that the Supreme Court should settle.
The case originated in 1846, when a Missouri slave, Dred Scott, sued to gain his freedom. Scott argued that while he had been the slave of an army surgeon, he had lived for four years in Illinois, a free sate, and Wisconsin, a free territory, and that his residence on free soil had erased his slave status. In 1850 a Missouri court gave Scott his freedom, but two years later, the Missouri supreme court reversed this decision and returned Scott to slavery. Scott then appealed to the federal courts.
For five years, the case proceeded through the federal courts. It was argued before the Supreme Court in 1856, at precisely the time that Senator Charles Sumner was delivering his bitter attack on the slave power, “The Crime against Kansas.”