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free blacks taney rights

Dred Scott v. Sandford is probably the most important Supreme Court case involving race and African Americans decided before the Civil War. The facts of the case are complicated, as is the lengthy opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. But the implications for blacks and American race relations were profound.


In 1854 Scott’s lawyers initiated a suit against Sanford in the U.S. Circuit Court in St. Louis. Scott could not directly sue for his freedom, but he could use the federal courts to test his freedom indirectly. The U.S Constitution allows a citizen of one state to sue a citizen of another under what is called “diversity jurisdiction.” This phrase simply means that citizens of different states can sue each other in federal courts. As long as Irene Emerson lived in Missouri, Scott could not claim a diversity of citizenship because he also lived in Missouri. But when Sanford, his new owner, moved to New York, a diversity of residence was clearly created: Scott lived in Missouri; Sanford lived in New York.

The problem for Scott—and this would become a key to the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court—was what constitutes citizenship. Scott was a resident of Missouri, but was he a citizen of Missouri? Scott’s new lawyer, Roswell Field, made a complicated argument in federal court. Field argued that Scott was free on the basis of his residence at Fort Snelling, and that if he was free he must be a citizen for the purpose of diversity jurisdiction. He did not argue that Scott had all the rights of a citizen; instead, he argued that if Scott was not a slave he must be able to sue as citizen of Missouri. On this basis, Field brought suit against Sanford for false imprisonment and battery against Scott, his wife, and their two daughters. These claims were really a subterfuge for gaining a hearing before the Court to test Scott’s freedom.

Scott assumed that Sanford would argue that Scott was a slave, and that he therefore had a right to imprison or beat him. Scott’s answer would be that he was free, and that Sanford was not, therefore, entitled to imprison or beat him. This would set the stage for a trial on Scott’s freedom. If the Court decided he was free, then Sanford would lose and pay minimal damages, and Scott would go free. Sanford would, in fact, make these arguments, but only after he made a more important one.

Sanford’s first answer to Scott’s suit was not about ownership, but about race. Sanford argued that, as a black man, Scott could never be a citizen, and thus could never sue in federal court. Sanford did not say that Scott could not sue because he was a slave. Rather, he argued that even if Scott were free, he could not vindicate that freedom in federal court because blacks could never be considered citizens under the Constitution, and thus could never sue in diversity. In making this argument, Sanford’s lawyers filed a “plea in abatement,” asking the Judge to abate, or end, the case immediately because a black could not be a plaintiff in a diversity suit in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Wells rejected Sanford’s claim in the plea in abatement. Judge Wells held that if Scott was free, then he was entitled to sue in federal court. However, after hearing the evidence in the case, Judge Wells ruled that Scott’s status as a slave or a free person could only be decided by Missouri law, and the Missouri Supreme Court had already ruled that Scott was still a slave. In reaching this decision, Wells ignored the force of the Missouri Compromise and did not consider whether the Missouri Supreme Court had the power to overrule, or ignored the federal law that made slavery illegal in the federal territory north of Missouri.


This set the stage for Dred Scott to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. What had begun as a relatively simple claim by a slave to be free had now turned into an extremely important case involving race, citizenship, federal law, the power of Congress, and national politics. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case in the spring of 1856, but it did not decide the case then; instead, it ordered a reargument for December 1856. In the intervening months the nation went through a presidential campaign in which the recently created Republican Party promised to prevent the spread of slavery into the western territories and to prevent any more slave states from entering the Union. The party carried eleven free states, sending a shudder through the South. Had the Republican candidate, John C. Fremont, carried just a few more states, he would have become president. Instead, a proslavery Democrat, James Buchanan, won the election.

In March 1857, two days after Buchanan’s inauguration, Chief Justice Taney announced the decision in the Dred Scott case. In his “Opinion of the Court,” Taney declared that no black person could ever be a citizen of the United States, and that Dred Scott, even if free, could therefore not sue Sanford in federal court. On the basis of this part of the decision, Taney might have declared that he had no jurisdiction to hear the case at all. Critics of the decision argued he should have done this. However, Taney did not stop with this pronouncement. He also addressed the effect of the Missouri Compromise on the status of slaves brought into territories made free by federal law. He concluded that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the federal territories, and he thus held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, as were all other restrictions on slavery in the territories. These two dramatic and controversial rulings placed the decision at the center of American politics and law for the next decade-and-a-half.

Thus, Taney argued that framers of the Constitution did not intend to include blacks as citizens and that they could not now be considered citizens. He wrote:

The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen? One of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution.

The very nature of this question led Taney to conclude that blacks had no such rights. This analysis conflicted with both the history of the nation’s founding and with current practice. At the time of the founding, blacks voted in a number of states and even held office in some of them. In most of the northern states and at least one southern state (North Carolina), free blacks voted in the elections to choose delegates to attend the state conventions to ratify the Constitution. These voters were certainly considered citizens when the nation ratified the Constitution. Furthermore, at the time that Taney wrote his opinion, free blacks could vote in a number of states, and in some states free blacks had held public office since the American Revolution. But he argued that even free blacks living in those states could never be citizens of the United States and have standing to sue in federal courts. Thus, Taney set up the novel concept of dual citizenship. He argued that being a citizen of a state did not necessarily make one a citizen of the United States.

Taney based this novel argument entirely on race. He offered a slanted and one-sided view of American history that ignored the fact that free blacks had voted in a number of states at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. Ignoring this, the Chief Justice nevertheless argued that at the founding of the nation blacks were either all slaves or, if free, without any political or legal rights. He declared that blacks:

Are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time 1787 considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and government might choose to grant them.

According to Taney, blacks “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 inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery.” Thus, he concluded that blacks could never be citizens of the United States, even if they were born in the country and considered to be citizens of the states in which they lived.

This dual citizenship meant that Massachusetts, where blacks were full and equal citizens, could not force its notions of citizenship on the slave states. It also meant that Southern states did not have to grant privileges and immunities, or any other rights, to the free black citizens of Massachusetts and other Northern states.

Taney’s opinion horrified not only free blacks, but also many Northern whites.

The antebellum North was hardly a bastion of racial equality, but many northerners who would never have advocated social equality or political rights for blacks nevertheless believed that blacks had minimal rights of citizenship.

The vast majority of Northern whites were even more shocked by Taney’s conclusion that Congress could never ban slavery from the federal territories. Taney reached this conclusion through two routes. First, he asserted that the Territory Clause of Article IV of the Constitution did not apply to territories acquired after 1787. This argument was weak and unpersuasive, and may not even have had a majority of the court supporting it. More persuasive, and more ominous for Northerners, was Taney’s assertion that the Fifth Amendment prevented Congress from ever freeing slaves because slaves were property that was specifically protected by the Constitution.

The message of Dred Scott was profoundly depressing for African Americans and their white allies in antebellum America. Taney’s statement about the rights of blacks— that they were “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”— may have been a statement of Taney’s vision of history, but in fact most Americans understood that this is what the Chief Justice of the United States believed should be the legal and social condition of African Americans. “They had no rights” was the lesson of Dred Scott .

The impact of the decision, however, was hardly what Taney expected. In the North, there was an uproar of protest and a rededication of purpose for Republicans. In Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, a relatively obscure railroad lawyer and one-term Congressman, re-entered politics to denounce the decision. In 1862 and 1863—less than six years after Taney announced his decision—Lincoln, by this time the President of the United States, would sign legislation ending slavery in the District of Columbia and the federal territories, and he would then issue the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in most of the South. By 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment would end slavery throughout the nation. In 1866, Congress would declare that all people born in the United States—including all former slaves—were citizens of the United States. In 1868, the nation as a whole would reaffirm this position by ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, which permanently reversed Dred Scott . At that point, blacks would have the same Constitutional rights as whites, even if it would take another century to insure that the laws throughout the nation were applied equally to all people.

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almost 5 years ago

Hey, so.... Um, this didn't answer my question. The question was...
" What was the basis of Dred Scott's claim that he was entitled to freedom?
A: His owner, John Emerson, had died.
B:He had lived temporarily in the free state if Illinois.
C:Slavery was morally wrong.
D:Emerson's widow lived in a different state that was free."
Is it A, B, C, or D? .
I need the answer with in 2o minutes. It's my homework and I have no idea.
Thanks, Kimberly . (: