Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court held that the Constitution of the United States was not meant to include American citizenship for black people, regardless of whether they were enslaved or free, and therefore the rights and privileges it confers upon American citizens could not apply to them.

Dred Scott Case Summary

Among the decade’s most controversial and divisive events was the notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857. That case involved a Missouri slave, Dred Scott, who had been taken by his master, an army surgeon, to both the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin. Scott later sued for his freedom on the grounds that his time in those places, where slavery was not recognized in law, had made him a free man.


The Dred Scott Case summary was enormously complicated. In 1836, the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society brought before the Massachusetts Supreme Court the case of a six-year-old slave girl who had been brought to the state by her mistress for a visit. According to the Society, since this slave girl was in a free state, the slave relation was dissolved and she was now free. (Since the girl was not a runaway, the case had nothing to do with the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.) Arguing on behalf of the girl, Rufus Choate declared: “Comity is only policy and courtesy—and is never to be indulged, at the expense of what the State, by its public law, declared to be justice.” That is, the understanding whereby states honored one another’s laws was a matter of courtesy and convenience, not of unbending principle, and thus Massachusetts was not bound by another state’s laws on slavery.

The rule of comity thus could not be used to challenge Massachusetts’s ability to declare free those non-fugitive slaves who reached its borders. The Court, concurring with Choate, declared that “an owner of a slave in another State where slavery is warranted by law, voluntarily bringing such slave into this State, has no authority to retain him against his will, or carry him out of the State against his consent, for the purpose of being held in slavery.”

Scott’s case was not entirely similar to that of this six-year-old girl, since the Massachusetts Supreme Court was deciding a case in which the slave had not yet been removed from Massachusetts. Scott, on the other hand, had already been back in Missouri for years by the time he pursued his case. The Massachusetts example, however, shows that entering the jurisdiction of a free state could make a slave free.

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