HISTORIC ARTICLE

HISTORIC ARTICLE

Mar 6, 1857 CE: Dred Scott Decision

Mar 6, 1857 CE: Dred Scott Decision

On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court decided for the defendant (enslaver) in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, ruling that African Americans could not be citizens of the U.S. and that the federal government had no authority to regulate slavery.

Grades

5 - 11

Subjects

Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History

















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On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled people of African descent could not be U.S. citizens, and therefore had no standing in the U.S. legal system. The court also ruled the U.S. government had no authority to regulate slavery in its states or territories. This decision became known as the “Dred Scott decision.” The decision was a severe threat to the lives of Blacks, enslaved or not, and a brutal defeat to the anti-slavery movement.

Dred Scott was an enslaved man held in the area of St. Louis, Missouri, United States. The man who enslaved Scott, a doctor in the military, took Scott with him when he moved to Fort Snelling, in what is today Minnesota. Fort Snelling was then in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was not allowed. Scott and his wife, Harriet, who was also enslaved, worked in Fort Snelling for years.

Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom after they moved back to St. Louis. They thought they had the right to emancipation because they had lived and worked in a “free” territory. The legal battle lasted 11 years, and the courts ruled against them. For Blacks, the Supreme Court’s ruling was catastrophic. It said that not only did enslaved people have no rights anywhere in the U.S. or its territories—neither did African Americans who were not held in bondage.

The language used by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney in his ruling opinion is notable for its nakedly racist language: “[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Taney, who had himself enslaved Blacks, lived to read the Emancipation Proclamation, written by one of the most vocal critics of the Dred Scott decision, President Abraham Lincoln.

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National Geographic Society
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National Geographic Society
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Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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