The case known as Dred Scott v. Sandford finally appeared before the Supreme Court in February 1856. (The trial name offically, though erroneously, spelled Sanford's name with two d's.) By this time, the entire nation had become involved in an intense debate over slavery. Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others just wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. This dispute grew even more heated as the United States expanded westward. Both sides wanted to spread their political ideas into the new territories and states.
Scott's case concerned several issues that both abolitionists (people who wanted to end slavery) and slavery supporters considered important. For example, it would decide whether slaves who were brought to free states had a right to freedom. Since Scott brought the suit as a citizen of Missouri, it would also decide whether black Americans could be considered citizens. Finally, it would decide whether the federal government had the authority to limit the spread of slavery to new states. Basically, the impact of the case extended far beyond Dred Scott and his family. The entire institution of slavery was placed on trial.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777-1864) announced the court's decision on March 6, 1857. Led by five justices who were Southerners, a majority of the nine-person court ruled against Scott. According to the Supreme Court, no black man—whether he was free or a slave—could ever become a U.S. citizen. Since only citizens were allowed to sue in federal court, Taney explained that Scott had no legal right to file his lawsuit in the first place. This ruling alone would have shocked and angered abolitionists all across the North. But Taney also said that the federal government did not have the right to outlaw slavery in any U.S. territories. He claimed that laws banning slavery were unconstitutional (went against the principles outlined in the U.S. Constitution) because they deprived slaveholders of property. He also stated that slaveholders could legally transport their slaves anywhere in the country since slaves were considered property.
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