Dred Scott v. Sandford

This is an excerpt from the 1857 United States Supreme Court ruling Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Supreme Court of the United States
Grade Level





Dred Scott, Plaintiff In Error, v. John F. A. Sandford.



1.   Upon a writ of error to a Circuit Court of the United States, the transcript of the record of all the proceedings in the case is brought before this court, and is open to its inspection and revision.

2.   When a plea to the jurisdiction, in abatement, is overruled by the court upon demurrer, and the defendant pleads in bar, and upon these pleas the final judgment of the court is in his favor—if the plaintiff brings a writ of error, the judgment of the court upon the plea in abatement is before this court, although it was in favor of the plaintiff—and if the court erred in overruling it, the judgment must be reversed, and a mandate issued to the Circuit Court to dismiss the case for want of jurisdiction.

3.   In the Circuit Courts of the United States, the record must show that the case is one in which by the Constitution and laws of the United States, the court had jurisdiction—and if this does not appear, and the court gives judgment either for plaintiff or defendant, it is error, and the judgment must be reversed by this court—and the parties cannot by consent waive the objection to the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court.

4.   A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a "citizen" within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.

5.   When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were [not] numbered among its "people or citizen." Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them. And not being "citizens" within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States, and the Circuit Court has not jurisdiction in such a suit.

6.   The only two clauses in the Constitution which point to this race, treat them as persons whom it was morally lawful to deal in as articles of property and to hold as slaves.

7.   Since the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, no state can by any subsequent law make a foreigner or any other description of persons citizens of the United States, nor entitle them to the rights and privileges secured to citizens by that instrument.

8.   A State, by its laws passed since the adoption of the Constitution, may put a foreigner or any other description of persons upon a footing with its own citizens, as to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by them within its dominion, and by its laws. But that will not make him a citizen of the United States, nor entitle him to sue in its courts, nor to any of the privileges and immunities of a citizen in another State.

9.   The change in public opinion and feeling in relation to the African race, which has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution, cannot change its construction and meaning, and it must be construct and administered now according to its true meaning and intention when it was formed and adopted.

10. The plaintiff having admitted, by his demurrer to the plea in abatement, that his ancestors were imported from Africa and sold as slaves, he is not a citizen of the State of Missouri according to the Constitution of the United States, and was not entitled to sue in that character in the Circuit Court.

11. This being the case, the judgment of the court below, in favor of the plaintiff of the plea in abatement, was erroneous.



1.   But if the plea in abatement is not brought up by this writ of error, the objection to the citizenship of the plaintiff is still apparent on the record, as he himself, in making out his case, states that he is of African descent, was born a slave, and claims that he and his family became entitled to freed in by being taken by their owner to reside in a territory where slavery is prohibited by act of Congress--and that, in addition to this claim, he himself became entitled to freedom being taken to Rock Island, in the State of Illinois--and being free when he was brought back to Missouri, he was by the laws of that State a citizen.

2.   If, therefore, the facts he states do not give him or his family a right to freedom, the plaintiff is still a slave, and not entitled in sue as a "citizen," and the judgment of the Circuit Court was erroneous on that ground also, without any reference to the plea in abatement.

3.   The Circuit Court can give no judgment for plaintiff or defendant in a case where it has not jurisdiction, no matter whether there be a plea in abatement or not. And unless it appears upon the face of the record, when brought here by writ of error, that the Circuit Court had jurisdiction, the judgment must be reversed. The case of Capron v. Van Noorden (2 Cranch, 126) examined, and the principles thereby decided, reaffirmed.

4.   When the record, as brought here by writ of error, does not show that the Circuit Court had jurisdiction, this court has jurisdiction to revise and correct the error, like any other error in the court below. It does not and cannot dismiss the case for want of jurisdiction here; for that would leave the erroneous judgment of the court below in full force, and the party injured without remedy. But it must reverse the judgment, and, as in any other case of reversal, send a mandate to the Circuit Court to conform its judgment to the opinion of this court.

5.   The difference of the jurisdiction in this court in the cases of writs of error to State courts and to Circuit Courts of the United States, pointed out; and the mistakes made as to the jurisdiction of this court in the latter case, by confounding it with its limited jurisdiction in the former.

6.   If the court reverses a judgment upon the ground that it appears by a particular port of the record that the Circuit Court had not jurisdiction, it does not take away the jurisdiction of this court to examine into and correct, by a reversal of the judgment, any other errors, either as to the jurisdiction or any other matter, where it appears from other parts of the tenor that the Circuit Court had fallen into error. On the contrary, it is the daily and familiar practice of this court to reverse on several grounds, where more than one error appears to have been committed. And the error of a Circuit Court in its jurisdiction stands on the same ground, and is to be treated in the same manner as any other error upon which its judgment is founded.

7.   The decision, therefore, that the judgment of the Circuit Court upon the plea in abatement is erroneous, is no reason why the alleged error apparent in the exception should not also be examined, and the judgment reversed on that ground also, if it disclosed a want of jurisdiction in the Circuit Court. It is often the duty of this court, after having decided that a particular decision of the Circuit Court was erroneous, to examine into other alleged errors, and to correct them if they are found to exist. And this has been uniformly done by this court, when the questions are in any degree connected with the controversy, and the silence of the court might cremate doubts which would lead to further and useless litigation.

This text is in the public domain.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What two states did the Dred Scott case deal with?
    Illinois and Missouri
  2. Question
    What reason does the Court give for not allowing Dred Scott the freedom to “sue” in a court of law?
    That Dred Scott is "not a citizen."
  3. Question
    How would you describe the overall tone of the ruling? In particular, how are the standing and status of Black people discussed?
    The tone is serious, scholarly and legalistic. With regards to Black people, the ruling is harsh, overturning a more favorable decision from the circuit court. The position of the Court is that Black people never were and never will be regarded as citizens or equal under the law.
  4. Question
    Did the Supreme Court uphold or overturn the circuit court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case? How do you know?
    Overturn. Answers will vary.
  5. Question
    What claims about the U.S. Constitution does the Court make to defend its ruling? Cite evidence from the text in your response.
    Students should include the following in their responses: The ruling argues that a) when the Constitution was passed, Black people were not regarded as “people” or “citizens” of any state or community, and therefore do not possess the rights therein; b) the brief mentions of Africans that do appear in the Constitution refer to them as property and not as citizens; c) no state can make a law regarding citizenship that overrides the U.S. Constitution; d) it doesn’t matter if public sentiment has changed since the time when the Constitution was adopted. It doesn’t change the law.
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