Learning about America through primary sources: Dred Scott decision

Written by Derek Monson

October 7, 2021

This is part 7 in Sutherland’s new series highlighting primary sources from American history in the hopes of enriching civics education. To help teachers and students identify where to start with primary sources, this series looks at a limited selection that we believe are indispensable to understanding our nation’s government, history, and current circumstances. During this time, when much is being said about America’s history, our hope is that this series can encourage the use of primary sources to help students find context and understanding.

What is this primary source?

Dred Scott was a Black American born into slavery in 18th-century Virginia. He was moved to Missouri by his owner and later taken into free territories before being moved back to Missouri. Under Missouri state law, a slave was free if he or she was taken to a free state or territory, and they could not be re-enslaved upon returning to Missouri. Under this law, in 1846 Dred Scott and his wife sued for their freedom. 

The Dred Scott decision refers to the Supreme Court decision in this case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, issued in 1857. The court ruled that: (1) the fact that Dred Scott was Black meant that neither he nor any Black American could be a citizen of the United States, and (2) the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

Where did it come from in our history?

The early to mid-1800s in America were a time of significant controversy and debate regarding slavery. The Missouri Compromise had been enacted in 1820 to preserve the federal balance of political power between free states and slave states (the free state of Maine and slave state of Missouri became states under this law) and to make slavery illegal in the remaining Northern federal territories. In the Compromise of 1850, Congress attempted again (unsuccessfully) to resolve disagreement and controversy over ownership of Black Americans as slaves.

In 1854, Congress replaced the provision of the Missouri Compromise that outlawed slavery in Northern territories with the concept of “popular sovereignty” in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Residents of federal territories would now decide for themselves whether to become free states or slave states. This repeal of the Missouri Compromise was perceived by abolitionists as a violation of a settled question regarding slavery, and it led some to ignore pro-slavery provisions in the Compromise of 1850. It also contributed significantly to the dissolution of one of the two major political parties of the time – the Whig Party – which was shortly thereafter replaced by the Republican Party, which still exists today.

In this context, the Dred Scott decision had the legal effect of taking the power away from the people’s elected federal representatives to decide the policy question of free states versus slave states. The Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act became major elements of Republican Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Stephen Douglas, which included the Lincoln-Douglas debates and became the basis for Lincoln’s successful presidential campaign in 1860.

Why is the Dred Scott decision an important element of civics and history education?

It is difficult (if not impossible) to truly understand later historical events critical to the modern American civic fabric – such as the Civil War and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – without first understanding Dred Scott.

Because the ruling put policy debates about slavery out-of-bounds for the political branches of the federal government (Congress and the White House) – where the people of the United States could have had influence – Dred Scott left the American people few options to resolve such disputes outside of armed conflict.

We live in a time of increasing public awareness about the realities of racial oppression throughout American history, including the racism both baked into and promoted by events like the Dred Scott decision. It is also a time when the difficult compromises necessary to help resolve controversial policy debates are studiously avoided by Congress and the White House – who are all too happy to sidestep political minefields – and left to be decided by the Supreme Court. In both cases, Dred Scott and its effects on American life and politics teach us important lessons in civics and history.

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