By the time of the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857, even a very moderate lawyer and former congressman like Abraham Lincoln became convinced there was a "Slave Power" conspiracy uniting proslavery presidents, the Supreme Court, and Southern Senators and congressmen, all intent on nationalizing the institution and overturning the Founders' dream of putting slavery on the path toward "ultimate extinction".
~ from Inhuman Bondage, David Brion Davis
“ It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
~ Roger B. Taney, Dred Scott v. Sandford decision
Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), was a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that people of African descent brought into the United States and held as slaves (or their descendants, whether or not they were slaves) were not protected by the Constitution and could never be U.S. citizens.
The Opinion of the Court, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, was extremely controversial. The decision was 7–2, and every Justice besides Taney wrote a separate concurrence or dissent. For the first time since Marbury v. Madison, the Court held an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional. The decision began by first concluding that the Court lacked jurisdiction in the matter because Dred Scott had no standing to sue in Court. However, in a move often criticized as being obiter dictum both at the time and in subsequent years, the Court went on to conclude that that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories and that, because slaves were not citizens, they could not sue in court. Furthermore, the Court ruled that slaves, as chattels or private property, could not be taken away from their owners without due process.
Taney had hoped to settle the issue of slavery in the United States with the Court's decision, but it had the opposite effect. The decision was fiercely debated across the country, as perhaps best exemplified by the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858. Abraham Lincoln, the second-ever Republican nominee for President, was able to win the presidential election in 1860; the stopping of the further expansion of slavery was a key Republican party plank.
Although the Supreme Court has never explicitly overruled the Dred Scott case, the Court stated in the Slaughter-House Cases that at least one part of it had already been overruled by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.
Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia between 1795 and 1800. In 1830, he followed his owners to Missouri. In 1832, U.S. Army Major John Emerson, stationed outside of St. Louis, purchased Scott. Over the next 12 years, Emerson took Scott along to new assignments at Fort Armstrong, Illinois, and later to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory (present-day Minnesota). Illinois, a free state, had been free as a territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and had prohibited slavery in its constitution in 1819 when it was admitted as a state. The federal government had also prohibited slavery within the Wisconsin Territory in the Missouri Compromise in 1820, and had reaffirmed the ban in 1836 with the Wisconsin Enabling Act. Additionally, while at Fort Snelling, Emerson allowed Scott to marry, which slaves were generally not allowed to do under common law, as slaves had no right to enter into legal contracts.
Emerson left the Army. He died in the Iowa Territory in 1843, his widow Eliza inheriting his estate, including Scott. Eliza Irene Emerson continued to hire out Scott after the death of her husband, keeping the rents for herself. Scott then attempted to purchase his freedom, but Emerson refused.
After failing to purchase the freedom of his family and himself, and with the help of abolitionist legal advisers, Scott sued Emerson for his freedom in 1846. Scott based his legal argument on precedents such as Somersett v. Stewart, Winny v. Whitesides, and Rachel v. Walker, claiming his presence and residence in free territories required his emancipation. Scott's lawyers argued the same for Scott's wife, and further claimed that Eliza Scott's birth on a steamboat between a free state and a free territory had made her free upon birth.
While the case awaited trial, Scott and his family were placed in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff, who had continued to rent out the services of Scott, placing the rents in escrow. The jury found Scott and his family legally free. Unwilling to accept the loss of four slaves and a substantial escrow account, Emerson appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, although by that point she had moved to Massachusetts and transferred advocacy of the case to her brother, John F. A. Sanford.
The Supreme Court ruling was handed down on March 6, 1857, just two days after Buchanan's inauguration. Chief Justice Taney delivered the opinion of the Court, with each of the concurring and dissenting Justices filing separate opinions.
The Dred Scott decision represented a culmination of what many at that time considered a push to expand slavery. Southerners at the time, who had grown uncomfortable with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, argued that they had a right, under the federal constitution, to bring slaves into the territories, regardless of any decision by a territorial legislature on the subject. The Dred Scott decision seemed to endorse that view. The expansion of the territories and resulting admission of new states would mean a loss of political power for the North, as many of the new states would be admitted as slave states, and counting slaves as three-fifths of a person would add to the slave holding states' political representation in Congress.
Although Taney believed that the decision represented a compromise that would settle the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, it produced the opposite result. It strengthened Northern slavery opposition, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.