Dred Scott v. Sandford

Following is the case brief for Dred Scott v. Sandford, Supreme Court of the United States, (1857)

Case Summary of Dred Scott v. Sandford:

  • Dred Scott was a slave who moved to a free state with the consent of his then master (Emerson).
  • When Emerson died, Scott tried to purchase both the freedom of himself and his family, but the estate refused. Scott then filed an action in a federal court which applied Missouri law (the state where Scott was purchased and currently lived).
  • After the court found for the estate, Scott petitioned to the Supreme Court
  • The Court found that Scott was a slave who was not afforded the rights and protections under the Constitution regardless of whether or not he temporarily lived in a free state with the intent to become a permanent citizen.

Dred Scott v. Sandford Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia. He was sold to Army Major John Emerson in Missouri, in 1830. Scott accompanied Emerson on multiple assignments in territories which outlawed slavery.  Emerson allowed Scott to marry and left Scott and Scott’s wife in Wisconsin and traveled to Louisiana on assignment.  Emerson then married Eliza Sandford. Shortly after, Emerson had Scott and Scott’s wife travel to Louisiana to serve Emerson’s family. Emerson died in 1843. Scott attempted to purchase freedom from slavery for himself and his family but Eliza Sandford, after inheriting Emerson’s estate, refused. In response, Scott filed suit against the executor of Emerson’s estate, John Sandford.  The federal district court relied upon Missouri law, finding Scott remained a slave.

Procedural History:

The Missouri Supreme Court upheld Scott’s slavery finding for Stanford. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the state court’s decision and Scott petitioned for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

Issue and Holding:          

Is a person who was born a slave and later taken by his owner to live in a free state with the intent of becoming a permanent resident considered a citizen of the United States including the rights and privileges of the Constitution? No.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Individuals of African descent and their descendants present in the United States are neither considered citizens of the United States, nor entitled to Constitutional rights and protections.


The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision.


To determine whether persons of African descent, currently free or not, are citizens entitled to constitutional protections, the analysis must start by considering the characterization of such person by the framers. The class of persons considered includes those whose ancestors are of African race and imported to the U.S. and sold as slaves.

At the time the Constitution was drafted, such persons were viewed as an inferior race not entitled to constitutional rights and freedoms. The Court held that regardless of its opinion on the classification, their role is not to judge the policy but interpret the application of the Constitution. The Court stated that just because someone is a citizen of a certain state, they are not entitled to all the same protections as a U.S. citizen.

The Court continues to contrast African American with Native Americans who have always been considered free and independent residents and states that the former have never been provided the same consideration and status.

The Court applies the above analysis to Scott’s case stating that although the language “all men are created equal” was constructed by the framers, their prevailing view of African Americans at that time was negative. As a result, it could not follow that such a class was intended to be part of the founding language.

In addition, persons of African descent were brought to the U.S. and sold as property and considered as such for several years following. Here, Scott is still considered property and a citizen of Missouri.

The Circuit Court had no jurisdiction over the claim because Scott does not have citizen rights, including the right to sue in federal court. Congressional Acts abolishing slavery where Scott had lived are unconstitutional.  As a result, Scott and his family are not made free by existing in these states with the intention of permanent residence.

Concurring and Dissenting opinions:

Concurring (Wayne):

Deciding Scott’s individual issue and whether the Missouri Compromise was constitutional were the only issues needing to be addressed by the Court.

Concurring (Campbell):

The overall resolution of the Majority is correct but the ruling that the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction is made in error. In addition, Scott’s absence from Missouri and short residence in a free state does not make him a free man.

Concurring (Catron):

Even though slaves owned by a master become free upon the master’s permanent residence in Illinois, Emerson never became a permanent resident of Illinois.  In addition, the Missouri Compromise was a valid exercise of Congressional power.

Concurring (Daniel):

Circuit Court should not have heard the case because Scott is not a citizen of Missouri. Scott’s status as a slave denies him the right to even bring a plea in the court system.

Concurring (Nelson):

States have a right to pass legislation regarding slaves as slaves are considered property. As such, Illinois properly passed their law outlawing slavery. However, since Emerson did not become a citizen of Illinois, Scott remained a slave.

Concurring (Grier):

The conclusion that the Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional is sufficient to decide Scott’s case.

Dissenting (McLean):

Characterizing Scott as a person whose ancestors were of African descent does not equate to a lack of right to sue in court. The requirements to bring suit are not the same as those required to vote, participate in civil society. This is evidenced in the fact woman and children are able to sue in federal court. Scott’s action for abatement is a trespass action (assault and wrongful imprisonment of Scott and his family) and should not be prohibited.

In establishing the Wisconsin territory, Congress expressly abolished slavery within its borders.  As a result, when Scott entered the area with his master’s consent, he was made a free man under the federal law.

Dissenting (Curtis):

The federal court has jurisdiction based off of diversity of citizenship as Scott was a citizen of Missouri and Sandford, a citizen of New York.

The enslavement of his parents should have no bearing on his right to sue because Scott became a free man under Illinois state law.

The Majority is incorrect in finding that Scott was still a slave when he re-entered Missouri because the state does not give proper weight to other state and federal governments which had established Scott’s freedom.


Dred Scott v. Sandford expressly stated that persons of African descent were not entitled to the same constitutional rights and protections. This is because slaves were regarded as property. In addition, the Court determined that the framer’s language of “all men are created equal” was not intended to include African Americans since they were regarded as property at that time as well.

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