Dred Scott was a slave born in Virginia at the turn of the century and in 1818 had moved with his master, Peter Blow, to a cotton plantation in Alabama. Twelve years later, the Blow family and their six slaves moved to St. Louis. In 1833, Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson, an army doctor who took Scott with him as his personal servant to Fort Armstrong, Illinois. Two years later, Scott accompanied Emerson when he was transferred to Fort Snelling on the Minnesota River in Wisconsin Territory. Other moves followed, but in a few years Emerson returned Scott to St. Louis. On April 6, 1846, Dred Scott sued to prove that he, his wife Harriet, and their two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, were legally entitled to their freedom. Dred Scott’s claim was based on his travels and residences. He argued that living in Illinois, a free state, and in Wisconsin Territory, a free territory according to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, had made him and his family free; and once free, they remained free, even after returning to Missouri, a slave state.
Eleven years after the Scotts first sued for freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case. The justices could have simply settled the immediate issue of Scott’s status as a free man or slave, but they saw the case as an opportunity to settle once and for all the vexing question of slavery in the territories. On the morning of March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney read the majority decision of the Court. Taney hated Republicans and detested racial equality, and the Court’s decision reflected those prejudices. First, the Court ruled that Dred Scott could not legally claim violation of his constitutional rights because he was not a citizen of the United States. At the time of the Constitution, Taney said, blacks “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order…so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Second, the laws of Dred Scott’s home state, Missouri, determined his status, and thus his travels in free areas did not make him free. Third, Congress’s power to make “all needful rules and regulations” for the territories did not include the right to prohibit slavery. The Court then explicitly declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, even though it had already been voided by the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Republicans exploded in outrage. Taney’s extreme proslavery decision ranged far beyond a determination of Dred Scott’s freedom. By declaring unconstitutional the Republican program of federal exclusion of slavery in the territories, the Court had cut the ground from beneath the party.