Dred Scott v. Sandford is an 1857 Supreme Court case in which the Supreme Court decided that people of African descent, both slave and free, were not, and could never be citizens of the United States. The decision also stated that because people of African descent were not citizens, they do not have the standing to bring a case before the courts. Additionally, the Court stated that the federal government could not prohibit slavery in the United States territories.

The man at the center of this case was Dred Scott. Scott was considered a slave at his time of birth in Virginia around 1800. The first person noted to claim ownership over Scott was Peter Blow, who moved Scott around the country while Scott was in his service. Scott and Blow travelled from Virginia to Alabama and from Alabama to Missouri. In 1832, Peter Blow died, and an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, purchased Scott. Emerson took Scott to Illinois, a free state, and then to the Wisconsin Territory, also a free area. While in the Wisconsin Territory, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, who then became property of Dr. Emerson as well. During his stays in the free areas of Illinois and Wisconsin, Scott would have had the opportunity to seek freedom for himself and his wife; however, he did not bring a claim until after Dr. Emerson’s death.

Scott and his wife began their first claim for freedom on April 6, 1846 by filing a petition in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time of the petition, Scott and his wife had the support of their minister and the Blow family. The first case was dismissed because hearsay evidence was produced, but the Scotts were allowed to re-file their claim with the St. Louis Circuit Court. At the conclusion of the second trial, the jury ruled that Scott and his family should be free. Unfortunately, Dr. Emerson’s widow appealed the case, and the Missouri State Supreme Court reversed the ruling, deciding that Scott and his family should remain enslaved. Scott then followed up by bringing a suit against John F. A. Sanford, who had taken over responsibility for Dr. Emerson’s estate, which included slaves who were considered property. It was this case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court. In their ruling, the Supreme Court not only stated that Scott could not be considered a citizen, and thus could not bring a claim, but that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in Northern Territories, and after the Scott decision, the American public feared that slavery would be allowed to move into free states and territories.

Dred Scott remained a slave for a time, but he and his family were returned to the Blow family after Mrs. Emerson remarried. In May of 1857, Scott and his family were given their freedom. A year later, Dred Scott died as a free man.


"It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice, the policy or impolicy, of these laws. The decision of that question belonged to the political or law-making power; to those who formed the sovereignty and framed the Constitution. The duty of the court is, to interpret the instrument they have framed, with the best lights we can obtain on the subject, and to administer it as we find it, according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted."

Dred Scott v. Sandford

"A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States."

Dred Scott v. Sandford

"The highest authority has spoken. The voice of the Supreme Court has gone out over the troubled waves of the National Conscience…. [But] my hopes were never brighter than now. I have no fear that the National Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous tissue of lies…."

Frederick Douglas, Comments Shortly After Dred Scott Decided

"'We, the people' — not we, the white people — not we, the citizens, or the legal voters — not we, the privileged class, and excluding all other classes but we, the people; not we, the horses and cattle, but we the people — the men and women, the human inhabitants of the United States, do ordain and establish this Constitution, &c.

I ask, then, any man to read the Constitution, and tell me where, if he can, in what particular that instrument affords the slightest sanction of slavery?"

Frederick Douglas, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, May 1857