Dred Scott was a Virginia slave who worked for most of his life around St. Louis, Missouri. He lived and worked for several years in Fort Snelling, then part of the Wisconsin Territory (now Minnesota), where slavery was prohibited. He and his wife sued for their freedom, a process that took them all the way to the Supreme Court. Their suit was rejected in a breathtaking fashion—all African Americans (slave and free) were ruled not to be citizens and the federal government had no right to regulate slavery in the states or territories. These decisions were major defeats for abolitionists and constitutional lawyers.

Engraving courtesy Library of Congress

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  • On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court made the so-called “Dred Scott decision.” It ruled that African Americans could not be citizens of the United States, and therefore had no standing in the U.S. legal system. The court also ruled that the U.S. government had no authority to regulate slavery in any of its states or territories. The Dred Scott decision was a severe defeat to the anti-slavery movement.
    Dred Scott was a slave who worked in the St. Louis, Missouri, area. Scott’s owner, a doctor in the military, took Scott with him when he moved to Fort Snelling, in what is today Minnesota. Fort Snelling was then in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was not allowed. Scott and his wife, Harriet, worked as slaves in Fort Snelling for years.
    Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom after they moved back to St. Louis. They thought they had the right to emancipation because they had lived and worked in a “free” territory. The courts ruled against them, and the legal battle lasted 11 years. The Supreme Court’s ruling was harsh. It said that not only did slaves have no rights anywhere in the U.S. or its territories—neither did free African Americans. 
    Although Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney emancipated his own slaves, his ruling opinion is notable for its racist language: “[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” 
    Taney lived to read the Emancipation Proclamation, written by one of the most vocal critics of the Dred Scott decision, President Abraham Lincoln.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    citizen Noun

    member of a country, state, or town who shares responsibilities for the area and benefits from being a member.

    critic Noun

    opponent of a policy.

    emancipation Noun


    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    harsh Adjective


    inferior Adjective

    of lower quality.

    legal Adjective

    allowed by law.

    military Noun

    armed forces.

    notable Adjective

    important or impressive.

    racist Adjective

    community or government policy of denying certain rights to people based on their ancestry, usually signified by skin color.

    regulate Verb

    to determine and administer a set of rules for an activity.

    severe Adjective


    slavery Noun

    process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.