The Case of Scott versus Sandfort

Also known as the Dred Scott decision, this U.S. Supreme Court case in 1857 showed that the legislature and executive branches did not have a monopoly on influencing the sectional crises. The judicial branch, under Chief Justice Roger Taney, waited for 11 years before handing down its verdict. Taney wanted to make sure the Court's decision was in-line with what the people wanted; Taney's people were the pro-states' rights southern Democrats.

The basis of this case was fairly simple, at least in theory. Dred Scott was a slave who was sold in 1833 to a U.S. Army surgeon. In 1834, the new owner, Dr. John Emerson, was transferred from St. Louis to a fort in Wisconsin Territory. Wisconsin Territory was well north of the 36 o;30' line.

Scott lived in the north for four years before Emerson was transferred back to St. Louis. In 1843 Emerson died and Scott was returned to St.Louis. With help from the son of the man who had sold him to Emerson, Scott brought a suit before a court in Missouri seeking his freedom. The court ruled in his favor, but on appeal, the decision was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court. Dred Scott then filed his appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, fully confident that they would see that he should be free. After 11 years, the Court ruled that he was still a slave because:

  1. Slaves were property and the federal government could not stop people from traveling with their belongings.
  2. The 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. (It was already repealed as of 1854. The Court tacked this on simply to remind/irritate northerners. They had no right to declare a repealed law unconstitutional).
  3. Slaves, not being citizens, could not legally bring a suit to court to begin with.

Taney, who Andrew Jackson had appointed to the bench as reward for his loyalty during the Bank War, was one of seven Jackson appointees on the Court in 1857. They were the Democratic Party's aces, the final defenders of states' rights. This may explain why they took 11 years to decide the case; they had to carefully decide in the interests of the southern people, not Dred Scott. They probably were of the opinion that the longer they took to officially decide the case, the more forceful the impact of their decision would be.

Taney's opinion ruled that depriving people of the right to travel with their property was a violation of their V Amendment Due Process rights. He also added that the Missouri Compromise specifically was responsible for violating those rights and that popular sovereignty was a more fairer test of whether a territory should be free or pro-slavery.

In other words, the Supreme Court was advocating mob violence. If that was not what the Court intended it hardly mattered; that is what happened next. All three branches of the government had failed the people; and the people, being descendants of revolutionaries, took it from there.