African-Americans Could Never be Citizens According to a U.S. Supreme Court Ruling in 1857


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Dred Scott was a slave who had been taken by his owner from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and to the Wisconsin Territory, where Congress prohibited slavery under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. He later brought suit to gain his freedom, claiming that since he had lived in two places where slavery was prohibited, that he should be considered to be a free man.

After working its way up through the courts, Dred Scott's suit reached the Supreme Court. Considering the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857, from the perspective of America in the 21st century, the Supreme Court Justices at that time appear to have been seriously misguided. One might say that they come across as a bunch of bigots. In a 7 to 2 ruling, in which each Justice wrote his own opinion, they decided that African-Americans could never be citizens. In the words of Chief Justice C. J. Taney, blacks could not be citizens because they “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the U. S. Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which the instrument provides and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [1787-88] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and Government might choose to grant them. "

The law at the time enabled a citizen of one state to bring suit against a citizen of another state. Ruling that Dred Scott, a slave, was not a citizen and could never be a citizen, meant that he had no legal right to bring suit. Although Dred Scott did not gain his freedom from the Supreme Court, he was freed by his owner soon after the announcement of the court decision. Ironically, he died the following year on September 17, 1858. Abraham Lincoln took issue with the Dred Scott Decision in a famous speech given on June 26, 1857. He continued to attack the decision in his campaign speeches during the Presidential election of 1860, and soon after he was elected, the Civil War began.

For more information about slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, visit the website .

Dr. Neil A. Frankel is the author of the website This website is non-commercial and has been created as a resource for students, teachers, scholars and individuals who have an interest in the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in America. The site includes a comprehensive listing of sources and links.

After a successful career in research and development for North American Aviation, Sun Oil Company, and Xerox Corporation, Dr. Frankel now conducts research, gives invited lectures and writes about the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in America.


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