What was the Dred Scott Decision?

Dred Scott

Dred Scott was a slave who had been taken by his owner from Missouri, a slave state. After they left from Missouri, Dred Scott and his owner. He then traveled to Illinois, a free state, and then to the Minnesota Territory, considered a free land based on the Missouri Compromise. Then, he returned to Missouri. Scott was actually with his family, which was his wife and two daughters, and they were traveling with his owner, who was a doctor in the United States Army.

The Army sent him to different places. He was in Missouri. Then, he got stationed in Illinois. Then, he was sent out to the Minnesota Territory, which meant that Scott and his family were taken into free states and into a free territory. Some people thought he should be considered free now, because he had been in free land, which would have given him his freedom.

Other people said, “No, he was still property of his owner, the doctor.” There was some confusion on this, and there were lots of people on both sides of the debate. This idea became more and more popular and more and more of an issue. After his owner died, after they returned to Missouri, Scott and abolitionists who wanted to abolish slavery, or get rid of it, took his case to court saying that Scott and his family were free after living in free territory.

That case got passed up, and up, and up, and eventually it made it to the Supreme Court, which seriously tested the United States laws regarding slavery. In the Missouri Compromise, Congress had come up with some certain laws that would be a compromise for both the slave states and the free states. Those laws, along with the other constitutional laws, all came into question with the Supreme Court when they had to decide this case.

Was Dred Scott and were his family members free because they traveled into free territory, or were they still considered slaves because they were still property of that owner? Well, the Supreme Court decided that, as a slave, Scott was not a U.S. citizen, therefore he could not sue for freedom. Since he wasn’t a citizen, he couldn’t sue for freedom. His time in three states did not change his status.

The Supreme Court ruled that no, he and his family were not free. They were still considered slaves. They were passed to the doctor’s wife. Whenever she remarried, they got passed off back to Dred Scott’s first owner. He didn’t get his freedom with this Supreme Court case. The Supreme Court said, “No, you’re not free. Even though you went in the free states, you were still property of that doctor and the doctor shouldn’t be deprived of his personal property because of where he travels.”

That was how the Supreme Court was thinking. Since he wasn’t a citizen himself, because he was of African descent, he couldn’t sue for his own freedom. Finally, the Supreme Court decided that the Missouri Compromise was overturned as unconstitutional. First and foremost, all laws and decisions need to be constitutional. They need to be in line with what the Constitution says.

The Supreme Court said actually the Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional were overturning it. The court said Congress had overstepped its bounds by outlawing slavery in the territories. This gave popular sovereignty to all states and territories, which meant that each state or territory got to decide for itself whether it was going to be a slave state or a free state or territory.

The Missouri Compromise trying to dictate which states would be free or which would be slave states or territories, the Supreme Court said, “That’s unconstitutional. Each state should get to decide for itself. We’re going to make sure popular sovereignty is very clear. That’s what we’re going to go by. We’re not going to go by the Missouri Compromise.” They also said that Dred Scott and his family should still be slaves, and they should be passed off like property, since his owner had died.

This decision spurred public outrage, especially among the abolitionists who wanted Dred Scott to become free and were trying to abolish slavery. It deepened tensions between the Northern and Southern states. The Northern states were primarily abolitionist, primarily free states. The Southern states were primarily slave states.

Tensions between those two areas of one country grew even deeper, because this case had made it clear that the North felt one way very decisively and the South was still leaning toward slavery very heavily. Eventually, it was going to be a bigger problem. There is a happy ending for Dred Scott, because, while the Supreme Court did not decide that he was supposed to be free and that his family should be free, Dred Scott and his family got passed off to his dead owner’s wife, the wife remarried, her husband gave Dred Scott and his family back to his original owners, and that owner immediately set him free and emancipated him.

Three months after this court decision, Dred Scott and his wife and two daughters did become free African-American people. They still didn’t count as citizens yet, because anyone of African descent couldn’t count as a citizen at this point in time, but they did become free people and could go live in the free states and make their own money and didn’t belong to anyone. They weren’t owned by anyone. There was a happy ending for Dred Scott, but this case spurred more and more tension between the Northern and Southern states.



by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: February 19, 2019