Dred Scott v. Sanford Case Brief

Summary of Dred Scott v. Sanford
60 U.S. Reports 393 (1854)


P (Dred Scott) is slave sold to Sanford (D) by Emerson. Emerson took P from Missouri (slave state) to Illinois (free state) and to Louisiana Territory (free), then back to Missouri (slave). P argues that he becomes a free citizen by way of his travel through Illinois and also his time in a free territory. (He also argues that his family was free by way of Louisiana Territory).

Procedural History:

Scott won his freedom at trial court but the Missouri Supreme Court reversed and remanded. He lost and appealed to the Supreme Court.


1. Did the Circuit Court have jurisdiction to hear the case?

a. Article III Section 2 says that the Supreme Court has jurisdiction in cases where there are citizens of two different states.

b. But, is P a citizen?

2. If the Circuit Court had jurisdiction, was the judgment given in error or not?


  1. Slaves were not intended to be included under the word “citizens" in the Constitution and thus can claim none of those rights. Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution and therefore is not entitled to sue.
  2. Neither Dred Scott nor his family was made free by being carried into Illinois.

Three issues to decide if court has jurisdiction: (broad to narrow)

a. Can any African American (free or slave) be a citizen?

i. Who were recognized as citizens when the Constitution was adopted (was the general term “citizen" in the Constitution meant to include slaves or was it just taken as a matter of fact that slaves were property)?

ii. just answering this question “no" would have taken care of the issue- although very broadly

b. Is the Missouri Compromise constitutional? Did congress have authority to make that state free? (to see if he becomes a citizen by way of Missouri)

i. Sanford claims that the Compromise is unconstitutional

1. Upper Louisiana is made free by the Missouri Compromise, but that means if you bring your slave into Upper Louisiana, you’ll be deprived of your property. Therefore, the Missouri Compromise is supposedly unconstitutional under the 5thAmendment Due Process Law. “No person shall be deprived of life liberty or property without due process."

2. BUT ignorance of the law isn’t an excuse. You should have known that the area was free. if you bring a machine gun into NY, that gun can be taken away from you without violating your due process law.

3. answering just this question would have only decided the issue of whether the family was free, because Scott has Illinois as a claim, which had the right to be free regardless of the Missouri Compromise

c. What is the effect of Missouri law on the removal? Who decides what the effect of going into a free area is? Does Missouri law decide that? Or another state’s law?

i. Did Dred Scott become free by being taken by owner to a place where slavery could not by law exist (Rock Island, Illinois) and upon his return to Missouri thus became a citizen of that state?

ii. This narrow question is at the heart of the issue, and answering this question could have resolved all of it. Instead they issued a broad opinion about whether or not Africans can be citizens.


Judgment for the defendant is reversed; mandate issued directing the suit to be dismissed for want of jurisdiction.


1) Plain language

1. In Scott the court breezed by the plain language of “we the people"

2) Legislative history

1. All colonies except Maine gave African-Americans less rights (couldn’t vote)

2. BUT if a restriction on voting means that you’re not a citizen, then that means that women and children were not citizens either

3) Other constitutional provisions

1. Two clauses that suggest slaves were meant to be property:

a. the right to import slaves –but this was only until 1808

b. the pledge to uphold the rights of the master and return to him any property that might have escaped

2. One problem with other provisions: might reflect a compromise between two different groups and may not tell us anything directly about the thoughts of the framers.

4) Precedent

1. If the Constitution intended for slaves to be citizens, why is it that even after the drafting of the Constitution, slaves were still treated as if they had no rights?

5) Specific intent

1. In Scott there was no history of debate during the Constitution or history of debated on an amendment (these would be the best sources). Instead, relied on what people, in general, thought at the time.

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