Dred Scott was a black man who was born a slave in Virginia around the year 1800. At nearly 32, he was taken by his master to free territory in Illinois. This move gave Scott the grounds to petition for his freedom, but he didn’t do so at the time. Instead, Scott was taken back to the South and continued to work as a slave. In 1843, he attempted to buy his freedom for $300 and was rejected, leading Scott to take his case to the higher courts.
A series of trials began in 1847. He lost in a local court, but the Missouri Supreme Court decided for a retrial. In 1850, he was declared free, but the court reversed the decision two years later. In 1856, Dred Scott v. Sandford went to the Supreme Court.
The Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared in 1857 that blacks — enslaved or free — were not and could never be citizens of the United States.
Justice Taney wrote in the decision that African-Americans, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.”
After the decision, Scott’s former owner’s sons purchased Scott and his wife and set them free. Dred Scott died just 18 months later.
The Dred Scott ruling shaped American history and racial dynamics for years to come. Abraham Lincoln made it the centerpiece of his “House Divided” speech in 1858. It was the central topic of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Frederick Douglass gave a speech about the decision in the May of 1857. He wrote, “As a man, an American, a citizen, a colored man of both Anglo-Saxon and African descent, I denounce this representation as a most scandalous and devilish perversion of the Constitution, and a brazen misstatement of the facts of history.”
The Dred Scott decision has never been officially overturned by the Supreme Court, although the first interpretation of the 14th Amendment stated that it reversed the decision.
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