Federal Courts in History

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. This case deals with the issues of slavery, states’ rights, and the interpretation of our Founding documents. This lesson focuses on the question of how the two sides in the Dred Scott decision interpreted the same Founding documents and came to such different conclusions.

Founding Principles

Federalism image

Federalism

The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Case Background

The period between the ratification of the Constitution and the Civil War was marked by increased efforts for the abolition of slavery. As the country grew, free states began to outnumber slave states in number and population. The abolitionist forces gained political strength. The Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise created vast new territories which Congress declared must be free states upon admission to the Union.

However, slave states remained steadfast in their claim that slavery was a state issue and helped pass two federal fugitive slave laws, gaining national recognition of their legal rights against abolitionists who helped slaves escape. Federal law now required the return of the slaves to their owners.

Into the midst of this turmoil, Dred Scott, a slave, filed a case in Federal Circuit Court in St. Louis, Missouri. Scott claimed that because he had lived for ten years in both a free state (Illinois) and a free territory (Wisconsin), he had been made a free man. His owner did not deny that Scott and his family had resided in Wisconsin and Illinois, but claimed Scott lacked standing to sue, as he was not a citizen of the United States.

The Court looked at the case in the broadest possible terms, using it as a platform to decide: 1) Did Scott have standing to sue? 2) Were blacks entitled to rights as citizens? And, 3) Could Congress restrict the rights of states to decide if they would be slave or free?

Why is the Dred Scott case considered to be one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in history? This Homework Help video highlights the case to students.

Key Question

Analyze how the two sides in the Dred Scott decision interpreted the same Founding documents and came to such different conclusions.

Directions

Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-M. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-M, as well as your own knowledge of history.

Materials

Documents you will examine:

  1. Runaway Slave Advertisement, 1769
  2. The Declaration of Independence, 1776
  3. Draft Declaration of Independence, 1776
  4. Preamble to the United States Constitution, 1789
  5. The United States Constitution, 1789
  6. The Missouri Compromise, 1820
  7. Anti-Abolitionist Handbill, 1837
  8. Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
  9. Majority Opinion (7-2), Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857
  10. Dissenting Opinion, Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857
  11. Frederick Douglass, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, 1857
  12. Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision 1857
  13. “The Political Quadrille, Music By Dred Scott,” 1860

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