Was Dred Scott sound law?

While I consider the decision as morally repugnant as the next person, I was wondering if it was only on that basis that it’s considered the worst SCOTUS decision ever. Taney’s reasoning seemed to be the notion that black people are equal is modern fashion, but gives a lot of examples showing that the framers didn’t feel that way. Is the decision bad because it’s immoral or because it’s a conclusion in search of a justification?


The basic reason was sound*, Dred Scott was not a citizen.
It was Taney’s lengthy obiter dicta that was problematic.

*If morally repugnant.

No, it was not sound law.

Taney’s central argument was that a black person could not be a citizen and therefore no black person could have any legal rights.

This was complete nonsense, even back in 1857. It had nothing to do with the legality of slavery; everyone conceded that was legal. But there was no basis for the claim that black people, free or slave, had no legal rights. It certainly wasn’t in the Constitution. Taney claimed that it was simply a universally recognized truth throughout the country’s history. Which wasn’t true; free black people and their holding of legal rights had existed since the country was founded (and long before during the colonial era). Taney just rewrote history to uphold his claim.

If it’s obiter dicta its by definition not “the central argument”. Rest of your observations are spot on.

Thats not what the OP asked. S/he asked whether the reasoning was sound according to the law and precedent of the time. (No one is arguinhg the judgement is morally awful).

The question sin Dred Scott v Sandford 60 US 393 (1856) were

The first question which was answered negative, since Scott was deemed not a citizen. That was the reason the case was decided as it was, the ratio decidendi.

The reasoning was that Scott was not a citizen since he was had been a slave. The first part of that( “not a citizen”) answered the question of juridiction; as he was not a citizen, then he did not fall under the requirement of diversity jurisdiction as laid out by Art III, Ss 2 of the US Constitution. The second part of that ruling, (as he had been a slave) was probably also the right ruling, in light of the law at that time. If an individual was a slave, then they were not (as one theory, there were others as well) persons and could not be citizens. Even a freedman would not necessarily become a citizen, so even if Scott was legally free, he would not necessarily become a citizen of the US or one of its States. (These days with slavery banned, we don’t have a concept of freedman, and as statelessness is seen as being very intolerable by most legal systems, typically a person has some citizenship)

All in all, even if I had been in Taney’s shoes, and even if I would have ruled differently, there was quite a lot of authority at the time to back up this part of the judgement.

By asnwering the first question in the negative; the second question becomes moot. However, Taney the went on in his famous obiter dictum where he stated that slaves could never be citizens, that the Missouri compromise was unconstitutional and that free states could not by law set slaves who had moved there, free.

None of that had any much legal standing and on the contarary, there was copious judicial and legislative precedent arguing the opposite. Indeed its often this part of the ruling, which is what people are usually talking about when they speak of Dred Scott. This is basically undefendable even by the law as existed then. Even by taking the most pro-slavery view.

Taney asserts that the Declaration of Independence declares that blacks are not citizens and could not be because it would be hypocritical for them to say that all men were created equal and still own slaves. The problem is that the founders were humans and could therefore be hypocrites. At the time of the ratification of the constitution five states allowed black to votes, so they were obviously citizens in those states. So by declaring that blacks could never be citizens Taney was making up law to fit his own feelings and not interpreting the constitution.

I think it was a central issue.

There had been the question of whether Scott had the right to file a lawsuit. Some people said he didn’t because he was a slave. Other people said that was begging the question. If Scott’s lawsuit was valid, then he wasn’t a slave.

Taney ruled that it didn’t matter. He declared that Scott didn’t have a right to file a lawsuit, regardless of whether he was a slave or a free man. He was black and, according to Taney, that alone disqualified him from filing a lawsuit.

Taney said two things. Scott was not a citizen, therefore, the *Federal Courts *had no jurisdiction. Secondly, he said (obiter) that a black man could never be a citizen.

If we are to answer the question in the OP, which is how legally sound this argument was, then the difference has to be understood. The two things are related, but the former does not necessarily flow into the later.

Scott could not sue, because he was not a citizen of the United States or a foreign country. That was the basis on which the case was decided. If Scott has been a stateless individual (of which in those post-1848 days, there was no shortage of in the US) he would not have been able to sue either. In the case there is quite a lot of discussion of that fact, the Court compares the situation with those of Red Indians (not US citizens at the time) who were citizens of various tribes/nations and therefore could sue.

I don’t understand. Certainly today a stateless person could sue someone, couldn’t they? Stateless people have most rights that citizens do. Not all; they can’t vote and it can be hard to travel abroad (although possible).

I’m not seeing the point you’re making. Taney’s decision that Scott was not a citizen was based on his declaration that no black person could ever be a citizen. He didn’t declare the Scott was not a citizen because he was a slave or a former slave or an illegally freed slave.

Wasn’t he? I don’t know that it was that cut and dry. Even assuming arguendo that Scott wasn’t a citizen of the United States by virtue of his race, the Constitution’s diversity jurisdiction isn’t restricted to citizens of the United States. The clause gives the federal courts jurisdiction over lawsuits

So, the question was, was Scott a citizen of New York, which was the state that he was living in and filed suit from, not was he a citizen of the United States. I don’t know that I feel entirely qualified to answer that, but I will point out that the New York Constitution of 1846, which was in force at the time, stated, in regards to voting requirements, bolding mine:

So being black wasn’t a bar to New York State citizenship in itself.

It was his owner, John Sanford, who resided in New York. Scott and his family resided in Missouri. (And the name Sanford got miscopied as Sandford at some point.)

The Scott family had previously resided in Illinois, a state which didn’t have legal slavery, and the Wisconsin Territory, a territory run by Congress which also did not have legal slavery. Scott’s enslavement was somewhat tenuous. He was technically owned by somebody who was collected money for hiring out Scott as a worker and who told Scott where to live. But Scott generally lived separately from his owner and collected some wages directly to support himself and his family.

There were precedents that justified Scott’s claims to freedom. Both Missouri and Louisiana courts had found that slaves who had been taken into free territories were free. The case was tangled over technical issues like where the lawsuit could be filed and who was Scott’s owner.

This was why Taney’s decision was such a shock. Taney could have ruled against Scott on a technicality like saying Scott should have filed his lawsuit in Illinois instead of Missouri and the decision wouldn’t have been controversial. But Taney’s race-based decision was unforeseen.

Taney’s decision was also really broad. He was invoking sweeping new powers for the Supreme Court. He was telling states that they could not give legal rights their black citizens. He was telling Congress it could not not prohibit slavery in territories it controlled. He was even telling states that they could not prohibit slavery in their own borders because he declared that a slave owner could bring his slaves into a free state and they would remain slaves. He overturned laws in a manner which had been established by Marbury but had never been invoked before. And finally, Taney was saying that black people had a particular legal status because their ancestors had been brought from Africa as slaves. This was establishing a principle of liability based on ancestry which I believe is outside American law.

Left one off my list. Taney acknowledged that free black people existed so he was implicitly acknowledging that a free black person could be wrongfully enslaved. But he declared that such a person was not allowed to use the legal procedure that would reverse this wrongful enslavement. The law is supposed to contain a means to address illegal acts. By stating that some people could be forced to endure an illegal situation because they were not entitled to the means to address it, Taney was significantly restricting due process.

US federal courts have limited jurisdiction, under the terms of Article III of the Constitution. Pertinent to this question, they can hear cases involving state law (as this did) between people of different states, or between a citizen of a state and a citizen (or subject) of a foreign country. Whether intentional or not, stateless people are not mentioned and thus cannot file suit in federal court over disputes involving state law. Such a person would probably be able to file suit in state court.

I think this is too broad. Citizenship under federal law had a meaning in those days distinct from citizenship under state law. Taney’s opinion is explicit that states retain the right to bestow state citizenship upon anyone they please, while holding that doing so has no effect on the person’s federal citizenship. The ugly heart of Taney’s opinion is that black Americans were not citizens of the United States and thus lacked the rights associated with that status, including (as was pertinent to the case) the right to invoke diversity jurisdiction in federal court. (His opinion also leaves open the possibility that there might be some cases that a black person could bring in federal court, but he does not indicate what those might be.)

This is confusing (and potentially subject to attack) because Article III speaks of “citizens of a State” when describing diversity jurisdiction. However, Taney is interpreting that to mean “citizens of the United States who are living in a particular state” rather than “persons whom a state has declared to have state citizenship.”

I agree completely with your first point; I think many of the founders even acknowledged at the time that they were being hypocritical. The point about some states allowing black citizens to vote is off target, though, in my view. Taney makes clear that the states are not restricted from affording any rights arising under the law of their own state to whomever they please. It’s just that doing so does not affect the availability of federal rights.

I think this is too narrow. Taney held that no slave, former slave, or descendant of a slave could ever be a citizen (of the United States). The idea that black people were not citizens of the United States was not new; as Taney points out, the US Government had refused to issue passports to black Americans on that basis. Taney took it a step farther, however, and put that proposition into the constitution, such that Congress lacked the authority ever to extend citizenship of the United States to black Americans.

It’s this point that led to the invalidation of the Missouri Compromise, to the extent that that law attempted to extend citizenship of the United States to black Americans. This is conventionally described as obiter dictum and not necessary to the resolution of the case, but the absurdly messy nature of the court’s ruling makes this distinction at least a little bit murky. Taney’s opinion was designated as “the opinion of the court,” but every Justice wrote an opinion, on wildly varying subject matter, and there is little indication as to who or how many actually joined Taney’s opinion. Only four other Justices mention Scott’s citizenship (there was an argument that Sanford had waived that issue), and two of them disagree with Taney. Arguably, therefore, the conclusion that the court lacked jurisdiction because Scott was not a citizen was supported by only three Justices. On the other hand, if I remember correctly, six Justices concluded that the Missouri Compromise was invalid.

I don’t think Taney saw his opinion as holding anything about state law. As noted above, he definitely acknowledged the rights of states to extend legal rights under state law to anyone. I believe the opinion also did not opine as to the status of a slave while traveling in a free state (although certainly whatever status the free state extended during such travel would not persist after the slave returned to his home state). I agree as to the limitation on the powers of Congress, that Taney said Congress could not afford citizenship or even freedom to slaves traveling in federal territory.

The principle of citizenship based on ancestry has some role in modern law. I was born overseas, and I am an American citizen since birth because my parents were. I agree with you, though, that the way Taney used it – once property, always property throughout the generations – was far beyond existing law.

Taney would probably say that this is a question of state law to be resolved in state court. To the extent federal law is implicated by whether someone is rightly deemed a slave or not, it’s possible that that might be one of the unnamed situations where Taney speculated that a black American might have the ability to sue in federal court. That probably gives Taney too much credit, however.

Doesn’t matter how fringe or tangential or even irrelevant it was – it can still have a central argument.

Taney’s point was well taken that the founding fathers did not consider blacks equal to whites. They were permitted to be enslaved, for example, and even in states where they were not enslaved, it was generally agreed that they were not entitled to the full rights and privileges of white citizens.

However, I am unsure how he gets from that point to the bald declaration that not only Scott, but no other black is now, nor can ever be a citizen of the United States. As noted above, many states granted suffrage for blacks, and although there were differing laws for blacks and whites, this was before the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

He could have certainly said that precedent holds that they are lesser citizens, but to say that they are not nor will ever or can ever be citizens seems like a bald judicial decree unsupported by anything.

Deleted. I need to rewrite this.

I was going to counter this point, because that didn’t seem entirely correct to me. However, the more I was looking at this, the less I could say anything with any certainty. I think the only way to really clear that up wold be a lot of research into primary sources.

My basic argument, however, is that early Americans mostly didn’t think about it at all. Free African-Americans were still unusual but hardly unheard of, and most people don’t seem to have treated them as an entirely different category of human. Their concept of “white” barely included Scots and maybe some Germans, but certainly not the Irish or most other Europeans. A race-based ideology didn’t get going firmly until maybe 1830-ish, depending on where you were in the country.

To add, here is the particularly unsupported part:

As noted, this was prior to the equal protection clause in the 14th amendment. States, even progressive northern states, would have separate punishments for the same acts committed by blacks and those committed by whites. The privileges and immunities clause prohibited states from treating sojourning citizens from other states worse than they treated their own citizens.

So if in South Carolina, white people were allowed to “keep and carry arms wherever they went” and free blacks were prohibited from owning guns, then a white person travelling from Pennsylvania could likewise keep and carry arms wherever he went, while the free black traveler from Pennsylvania would be prohibited from having a gun.

I think Taney sets up an unsupported example, defeats it, and then simply declares that the overarching, overbearing principle (blacks cannot be citizens) that he again creates out of wholecloth must be the correct one or else the first example that he created and defeated must be true. It’s terrible tortured logic unsupported by precedent at the time.