March 6, 1857

The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision denied the citizenship of African Americans and the right of the federal government to control slavery in US territories. In 1846, Missouri slave Dred Scott had sued for his freedom. Scott argued that while he had been the slave of an army surgeon, he had lived for four years in Illinois, a free state, and Wisconsin, a free territory, and that his residence on free soil had erased his slave status. In 1850 a Missouri court gave Scott his freedom, but two years later, the Missouri supreme court reversed this decision on appeal and returned Scott to slavery. Scott then appealed to the federal courts. For five years, the case proceeded through the federal courts, reaching the Supreme Court. For more than a year, the Court withheld its decision. Many thought that the Court delayed its ruling to ensure a Democratic victory in the 1856 elections. Then, in March 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney announced the decision. By a 7-2 margin, the Court ruled that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court because black people, enslaved or free, were not citizens; that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional; and that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the territories.

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