Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion in the Dred Scott Case. Scott, a slave, had been brought from a slave territory to a free territory and demanded his freedom. The Court ruled that as an enslaved person, Scott was not a citizen and could not sue in the courts. The decision further polarized the North and the South and ended any chance of compromise. This pro-slavery Supreme Court decision illuminates how the issue of slavery brought the nation to the brink of the Civil War. Read the full text here.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. plaintiff
    a person who brings an action in a court of law
    The plaintiff in error, who was also the plaintiff in the court below, was, with his wife and children, held as slaves by the defendant in the State of Missouri, and he brought this action in the Circuit Court of the United States for that district to assert the title of himself and his family to freedom.
  2. declaration
    a formal public statement
    The declaration is in the form usually adopted in that State to try questions of this description, and contains the averment necessary to give the court jurisdiction; that he and the defendant are citizens of different States; that is, that he is a citizen of Missouri, and the defendant a citizen of New York.
  3. abatement
    the act of making less active or intense
    The defendant pleaded in abatement to the jurisdiction of the court, that the plaintiff was not a citizen of the State of Missouri, as alleged in his declaration, being a negro of African descent, whose ancestors were of pure African blood and who were brought into this country and sold as slaves.
  4. demur
    enter a formal objection to an opponent's pleadings
    To this plea the plaintiff demurred, and the defendant joined in demurrer.
  5. sundry
    consisting of a haphazard assortment of different kinds
    And he thereupon put in sundry pleas in bar, upon which issues were joined, and at the trial the verdict and judgment were in his favor.
  6. advert
    give heed (to)
    But, in making this objection, we think the peculiar and limited jurisdiction of courts of the United States has not been adverted to.
  7. inferior
    one of lesser rank or station or quality
    But the record, when it comes before the appellate court, must show affirmatively that the inferior court had authority under the Constitution to hear and determine the case.
  8. provision
    a stipulated condition
    And if the plaintiff claims a right to sue in a Circuit Court of the United States under that provision of the Constitution which gives jurisdiction in controversies between citizens of different States, he must distinctly aver in his pleading that they are citizens of different States, and he cannot maintain his suit without showing that fact in the pleadings.
  9. aver
    declare or affirm solemnly and formally as true
    And if the plaintiff claims a right to sue in a Circuit Court of the United States under that provision of the Constitution which gives jurisdiction in controversies between citizens of different States, he must distinctly aver in his pleading that they are citizens of different States, and he cannot maintain his suit without showing that fact in the pleadings.
  10. descendant
    a person considered as coming from some ancestor or race
    The only matter in issue before the court, therefore, is, whether the descendants of such slaves, when they shall be emancipated, or who are born of parents who had become free before their birth, are citizens of a State in the sense in which the word "citizen" is used in the Constitution of the United States.
  11. import
    bring in from abroad
    The question is simply this: can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution?
  12. cede
    relinquish possession or control over
    But that claim was acknowledged to be subject to the right of the Indians to occupy it as long as they thought proper, and neither the English nor colonial Governments claimed or exercised any dominion over the tribe or nation by whom it was occupied, nor claimed the right to the possession of the territory, until the tribe or nation consented to cede it.
  13. comity
    a state or atmosphere of harmony or mutual civility
    But this character, of course, was confined to the boundaries of the State, and gave him no rights or privileges in other States beyond those secured to him by the laws of nations and the comity of States.
  14. bound
    confined by contract
    They 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 inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.
  15. article
    one of a class of artifacts
    He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.
  16. traffic
    buying and selling, especially illicit trade
    He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.
  17. spurious
    plausible but false
    It is entitled "An act for the better preventing of a spurious and mixed issue," ...
  18. moiety
    one of two approximately equal parts
    ...nor shall any person, duly authorized to solemnize marriage, presume to join any such in marriage, on pain of forfeiting the sum of fifty pounds; one moiety thereof to her Majesty, for and towards the support of the Government within this province, and the other moiety to him or them that shall inform and sue for the same, in any of her Majesty's courts of record within the province, by bill, plaint, or information.
  19. indelible
    not able to be removed or erased
    The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection.
  20. void
    lacking any legal or binding force
    The law last mentioned was passed in October, 1788, about nine months after the State had ratified and adopted the present Constitution of the United States, and, by that law, it prohibited its own citizens, under severe penalties, from engaging in the trade, and declared all policies of insurance on the vessel or cargo made in the State to be null and void.
  21. manumit
    free from slavery or servitude
    The term free inhabitant, in the generality of its terms, would certainly include one of the African race who had been manumitted.
  22. enjoin
    issue an injunction
    No other court could have enjoined him, for certainly no State equity court could interfere in that way with the judgment of a Circuit Court of the United States.
  23. liberal
    not strictly literal or exact
    No one, we presume, supposes that any change in public opinion or feeling, in relation to this unfortunate race, in the civilized nations of Europe or in this country should induce the Court to give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted.
  24. abrogate
    revoke formally
    Any other rule of construction would abrogate the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere reflex of the popular opinion or passion of the day.
  25. remand
    refer a matter or legal case back to another authority
    And in a writ of error to a Circuit Court of the United States, the whole record is before this court for examination and decision, and if the sum in controversy is large enough to give jurisdiction, it is not only the right, but it is the judicial duty of the court to examine the whole case as presented by the record; and if it appears upon its face that any material error or errors have been committed by the court below, it is the duty of this court to reverse the judgment and remand the case.
  26. latitude
    an imaginary line around the Earth parallel to the equator
    The act of Congress, upon which the plaintiff relies, declares that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, shall be forever prohibited in all that part of the territory ceded by France, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude and not included within the limits of Missouri.
    The act of Congress that established this latitude line was part of a larger set of agreements called the "Missouri Compromise."
  27. servitude
    state of subjection to an owner or master
    The act of Congress, upon which the plaintiff relies, declares that slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, shall be forever prohibited in all that part of the territory ceded by France, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude and not included within the limits of Missouri.
  28. perspicuity
    clarity as a consequence of being easily understandable
    The Constitution has always been remarkable for the felicity of its arrangement of different subjects and the perspicuity and appropriateness of the language it uses.
  29. discretionary
    having the ability to act according to your own judgment
    It exercises the discretionary power of a State Government in authorizing the establishment of a court in which the judges hold their appointments for a term of years only, and not during good behaviour, and it exercises the power of the General Government in investing that court with admiralty jurisdiction, over which the General Government had exclusive jurisdiction in the Territory.
  30. warrant
    show to be reasonable or provide adequate ground for
    Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the line therein mentioned is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void...
  31. propriety
    correct behavior
    It is acquired to become a State, and not to be held as a colony and governed by Congress with absolute authority, and, as the propriety of admitting a new State is committed to the sound discretion of Congress, the power to acquire territory for that purpose, to be held by the United States until it is in a suitable condition to become a State upon an equal footing with the other States, must rest upon the same discretion.
  32. abridge
    lessen, diminish, or curtail
    For example, no one, we presume, will contend that Congress can make any law in a Territory respecting the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people of the Territory peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances.
  33. deprive
    keep from having, keeping, or obtaining
    Thus, the rights of property are united with the rights of person, and placed on the same ground by the fifth amendment to the Constitution, which provides that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law.
  34. dignify
    give status or attention to, often undeservedly
    And an act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States, and who had committed no offence against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.
  35. inroad
    an encroachment or intrusion
    It is a total absence of power everywhere within the dominion of the United States, and places the citizens of a Territory, so far as these rights are concerned, on the same footing with citizens of the States, and guards them as firmly and plainly against any inroads which the General Government might attempt under the plea of implied or incidental powers.
Created on August 3, 2012 (updated September 10, 2019)

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