On March 6, 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Black people were not American citizens and could not sue in courts of law. The Court ruled against Dred Scott, an enslaved Black man who tried to sue for his freedom.
For years before this case began, Dred Scott was enslaved by Dr. John Emerson, a military physician who traveled and resided in several states and territories where slavery was illegal. Dr. Emerson eventually took Mr. Scott back to Missouri, where slavery was legal. When Dr. Emerson died there in 1843, Mr. Scott was still enslaved.
After Dr. Emerson's death, Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sought freedom in the Missouri state courts. The Scotts argued that their prior residence in free territories had voided their enslavement. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the Scotts and authorized Dr. Emerson's widow, Irene, to continue to enslave them. When Irene Emerson later gave her estate, including the Scotts, to her brother, John Sandford, Dred Scott brought suit in federal court.
Written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision held that the Fifth Amendment did not allow the federal government to deprive a citizen of property, including enslaved people, without due process of law and that "All men are created Equal" except people of African descent, free or enslaved, because they were not United States citizens and subsequently had no right to sue in federal court.
This ruling kept the Scotts legally enslaved, invalidated the Missouri Compromise, and re-opened the question of slavery's expansion into the territories. The resulting legal uncertainty greatly increased sectional tensions between Northern and Southern states and pushed the nation forward on the path toward civil war. Unable to win liberty in the courts, Dred and Harriet Scott were freed by a subsequent enslaver a few months after the decision. Dred Scott died just months later of tuberculosis, while Harriet Scott lived until 1876.