Roger Taney and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857

Roger B. Taney

Dred Scott’s residency in Illinois and Wisconsin should have made him a freedman but the US Supreme Court disagreed, declaring the 1820 Compromise unconstitutional.

On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the matter of Dred Scott. All nine justices wrote opinions but only two, Benjamin Curtis and John McLean, offered dissents that supported Scott. News of the high court’s decision reverberated throughout the nation, further heightening sectional tension and bringing the country ever closer to a civil war. Dred Scott v Sandford was one of the final events in one of the nation’s most turbulent decades that would see the United States pulled apart in 1861.

Dred Scott: Free or Slave?

Scott began his legal battles in 1846 after his master, Dr. Emerson, died and title eventually passed to John Sandford of New York, brother of Emerson’s widow. Scott’s argument rested in the fact that Dr. Emerson, an army surgeon, had taken Scott first to the free state of Illinois in 1834 and then in 1836 to the free soil territory of Wisconsin. After returning to Missouri and being denied an offer to purchase his freedom, Scott sued, first in the Missouri courts and in 1854 in the US Circuit Court of Missouri. From there, the case was appealed by Scott to the US Supreme Court on a writ of error.

The court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, was inclined to dismiss the case for reasons of jurisdiction, but agreed to hear it after McLean and Curtis made it known that they were preparing opinions. At issue was the belief that Scott could not bring a federal lawsuit because he was not a citizen of the United States: Scott was both black and a slave. As Chief Justice Taney noted in his opinion, not even freedmen could be citizens.

Taney reasoned that blacks had a long established servile position. Drawing from history, he enumerated the thoughts of the Founding Fathers who, in his opinion, never viewed blacks as equals. Taney then enunciated the doctrine of dual citizenship: although some northern states had extended citizenship to blacks, there was a distinct difference between federal and state citizenship.

Why Scott Was Still a Slave

Taney addressed the doctrine of vested interests, applying the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause and alleging that slaves, as legal property, could not be freed by law without just compensation. Additionally, the Constitution did not give Congress the power to regulate slavery: the right to hold slaves constituted a local property right. Hence, Scott was still a slave.

The Chief Justice interpreted the Constitution’s intent involving federal authority over territories as being derived from the power to create states and to acquire territory by treaty, not from the clause that empowered the Congress to make “necessary rules and regulations.” Thus, Congress had no constitutional basis for addressing slavery in the states.

Taney then reasoned that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment. Although the Act had already been repealed by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, this part of the decision would make it far more difficult for Congress, in January 1861, to resurrect the 1820 Compromise short of a Constitutional amendment. The decision also damaged the logic behind popular sovereignty, the solution to slavery in the territories espoused by Lewis Cass and Stephen Douglas.


The decision was condemned by leaders of the new Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln felt the court needed reforming while future Republican leaders Ben Wade and Roscoe Conkling openly called for packing the court. Ultimately the Fourteenth Amendment overturned the Dred Scott Decision.


  1. Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins & Development (New York: W.W.Norton & Company)