Dred Scott was the name of an African American slave. He was taken by
his master, an officer in the U.S. Army, from the slave state of Missouri
to the free state of Illinois and then to the free territory of Wisconsin.
He lived on free soil for a long period of time.
When the Army ordered his master to go back to Missouri, he took Scott
with him back to that slave state, where his master died. In 1846, Scott
was helped by Abolitionist (anti-slavery) lawyers to sue for his freedom
in court, claiming he should be free since he had lived on free soil for
a long time. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, was a former slave
owner from Maryland.
In March 1857, Scott lost the decision as seven out of nine Justices
on the Supreme Court declared no slave or descendant of a slave could be
a U.S. citizen, or ever had been a U.S. citizen. As a non-citizen, the
court stated, Scott had no rights and could not sue in a Federal Court
and therefore must remain a slave.
At that time there were nearly 4 million slaves in America. The court's
ruling affected the status of every enslaved and free African American
in the United States. The ruling served to turn back the clock concerning
the rights of African Americans, ignoring the fact that black men in five
of the original States had been full voting citizens dating back to the
Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The Supreme Court also ruled that Congress could not stop slavery in
the newly emerging territories and declared the Missouri Compromise of
1820 to be unconstitutional. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery
north of the parallel 36°30´ in the Louisiana Purchase. The Court
declared it violated the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits
Congress from depriving persons of their property without due process of
Anti-slavery leaders in the North cited the controversial Supreme Court
decision as evidence that Southerners wanted to extend slavery throughout
the nation and ultimately rule the nation itself. Southerners approved
the Dred Scott decision believing Congress had no right to prohibit slavery
in the territories. Abraham Lincoln reacted with disgust to the ruling
and was spurred into political action, publicly speaking out against it.
Overall, the Dred Scott decision had the effect of widening the political
and social gap between North and South and took the nation closer to the
brink of Civil War.