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Dred Scott v. Sandford

Citation. 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1856)
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Citation. 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1856)

Brief Fact Summary.

Dred Scott, a black slave, claimed that he is entitled to freedom when his master died. Emerson’s widow refused his freedom.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Each State may confer rights and privileges upon an alien, or any one it thinks proper, or upon any class or description of persons; yet that individual would not be a citizen in the sense in which that word is used in the Constitution of the United States, nor entitled to sue as such in one of its courts.


Dred Scott was a black slave belonging to a U.S army surgeon, Emerson. He was brought by Emerson to Illinois, a free state. Scott returned to Missouri with his wife. When Emerson died, Scott attempted to purchase his freedom from Emerson’s widow but she refused. Scott sued arguing that his residence in Wisconsin – where Congress had prohibited slavery by law – for two years made him free.


Can a black person, 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, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?


No, as Scott was a slave when taken into the State of Illinois by his owner, and was there held as such depended on the laws of Missouri, and not of Illinois. Scott and his family upon their return were not free, but were, by the laws of Missouri, the property of the owner. No State, since the adoption of the Constitution, can by naturalizing an alien invest him with the rights and privileges secured to a citizen of a State under the Federal Government.


Justice McLean and Curtis

McLean: Being born under our Constitution and laws, no naturalization is required, as one of foreign birth, to make him a citizen. The most general and appropriate definition of the term citizen is a freeman. Being a freeman, and having his domicile in a State different from that of the defendant, he is a citizen within the act of Congress, and the courts of the Union are open to him.

Curtis: The Constitution was not made exclusively by and for the white race. One state may confine the right of suffrage to white male citizens; another may extend it to colored persons and females; one may allow all persons above a prescribed age to convey property and transact business. But whether native-born women, or persons under age, or under gaurdianship because insane or spendthrifts, be excluded from voting or holding office, or allowed to do so, no one will deny that they are citizens of the United States.


Congress said that a person may be a citizen, and entitled to that character, although he does not possess all the rights which may belong to other citizens; as, for instance, the right to vote, or to hold particular offices; and that yet, when he goes into another state, he is entitled to be recognized there as a citizen, though the State may measure his rights by the rights which it allows to persons of a like character or class resident in the State, and refuse to him the full rights of citizenship. A person may be entitled to vote by the law of the state, who is not a citizen even of the state itself. And the State may give the right to free negroes and mulattoes, but that does not make them citizens of the State, and still less of the United States. 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.

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