March 6th, 1857

United States Supreme Court Rules Black Americans Are Not Citizens and Cannot Sue

Military physician Dr. John Emerson traveled and resided in several states and territories where slavery was illegal, always accompanied by Dred Scott, an enslaved black man. Dr. Emerson and Mr. Scott eventually returned home to Missouri, where slavery was legal. Dr. Emerson died in 1843, still owning Mr. Scott as a slave.

After Dr. Emerson's death, Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sought freedom in the Missouri state courts. The Scotts argued that their prior residence in free territories had voided their enslavement. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the Scotts and authorized Dr. Emerson's widow, Irene, to continue to own them. When Irene Emerson later gave her estate, including the Scotts, to her brother, John Sandford, Dred Scott brought suit in federal court.

On March 6, 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the United States Supreme Court dismissed Mr. Scott's claim on the grounds that he was property and lacked standing to sue in federal court. The Court's opinion concluded that black people could not be citizens under the United States Constitution because at the time of its signing they had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

The Dred Scott decision further held that the Fifth Amendment did not allow the federal government to deprive a citizen of property, including slaves, without due process of law. This ruling invalidated the Missouri Compromise and re-opened the question of slavery's expansion into the territories. The resulting uncertainty greatly increased sectional tensions between northern and southern states and pushed the nation forward on the path toward civil war.