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Not even on Page One

It wasn’t even front page news, one hundred and sixty years ago yesterday.

It was only on page 4 of the New York Herald.1

In the Richmond (Virginia) Daily Dispatch, page 2.2

Most newspapers didn’t carry the news until March 9th, when it ran on page 5 of the New York Daily Tribune,3 and page 2 of the Evansville (Indiana) Daily Journal.4

It came to be considered one of the very worst decisions ever of the United States Supreme Court.

The case: Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).

Decision date: 6 March 1857.

The issue to be decided, stated by the Court in stark terms:

can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution?5

The Court’s answer, even starker:

We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time 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 the Government might choose to grant them.6

Chief Justice Taney, writing for the majority of the Court, finally held: “Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to sue in its courts, and consequently that the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction of the case…”7

Justices McLean and Curtis dissented. McLean wrote, simply: “Being a freeman, and having his domicil in a State different from that of the defendant, (Scott) is a citizen within the act of Congress, and the courts of the Union are open to him.”8 Curtis added: “color was not a necessary qualification of citizenship.”9

Their votes were not enough. The decision stood. Dred Scott — and every other natural-born American whose ancestors had been enslaved — was not a citizen of the United States. He could not sue in the federal courts to protect and win his freedom.

Scott himself was emancipated later in 1857, but lived only 18 months as a free man before dying of tuberculosis.10 His name, however, became a symbol of judicial oppression.

The decision itself is widely regarded as among the worst decisions, if not the single worst decision ever reached by the Supreme Court. The editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica didn’t mince words, calling it “(c)ertainly the poorest and most-destructive piece of legal reasoning ever issued by the Supreme Court and arguably the biggest train wreck in the history of Western jurisprudence.”11 The American Bar Association Journal rated it and Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate but equal decision of 1896, as the two worst decisions ever.12 And describes it as “(h)ands down the worst Supreme Court decision ever.”13

But what it did do was serve as a catalyst towards even greater anti-slavery sentiment and thus towards the eventual Civil War and the end to slavery altogether: “The decision understandably outraged antislavery forces in the North and emboldened pro-slavery forces in the South. Far from resolving the sectional crisis, Taney made it much worse. The eventual result? The Civil War.”14

And yet it wasn’t even on page one of the newspapers the day after the decision… 160 years ago yesterday.


Image: Wikimedia.

  1. “Decision of the United States Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Case,” New York Herald, 7 March 1857, p. 4, col. 5; digital images, Library of Congress, Chronicling America ( : accessed 7 Mar 2017).
  2. Ibid., “Decision in the ‘Dred Scott’ Case,” Richmond (Va.) Daily Dispatch, 7 Mar 1857, p. 2, col. 3.
  3. Ibid., “The Dred Scott Case,” New York Daily Tribune, 9 Mar 1857, p. 5, col. 3.
  4. Ibid., “The Dred Scott Case,” Evansville (Ind.) Daily Journal, 9 Mar 1857, p. 5, col. 3.
  5. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 403 (1857).
  6. Ibid., at 404-405.
  7. Ibid., at 427.
  8. Ibid., at 531.
  9. Ibid., at 587.
  10. See “Missouri’s Dred Scott Case, 1846-1857,” Missouri Digital Heritage ( : accessed 7 March 2017).
  11. Brian Duignan, “Editor Picks: The Worst U.S. Supreme Court Decisions (Part One),” Encyclopedia Britannica ( : accessed 7 Mar 2017).
  12. David G. Savage, “How Did They Get It So Wrong?,” ABA Journal, posted 1 Jan 2009 ( : accessed 7 Mar 2017).
  13. Casey C. Sullivan, “13 Worst Supreme Court Decisions of All Time,” blog, posted 14 Oct 2015 ( : accessed 7 Mar 2017).
  14. Duignan, “Editor Picks: The Worst U.S. Supreme Court Decisions (Part One).”
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