Inequality between races has been a central issue for the United States for its entire history. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, it protected slavery, permitted participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and declared that slaves of African descent could be counted as 3/5 of a person. Over time, changes have been made to the U.S. Constitution that have outlawed slavery, implemented universal suffrage for all citizens without bias of gender or race, and guaranteed citizens equal protection under the law. The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting and implementing rulings on how these constitutional changes can be applied. This is done when citizens file lawsuits.
Justices of the United States Supreme Court have heard and ruled on many cases that have dealt with race—questions such as who has the right to use the courts, where can black and white people live, what public schools can a person attend, and how can education be equal for everyone? For the courts, rulings from earlier cases set a precedent for current and future rulings. Sometimes the Court even states when an earlier Court’s ruling was just flat out wrong or misguided. The five cases below were decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and dealt with how the Court interpreted race and who has rights under the law.
Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford – 1857
Dred Scott and his wife Harriet Scott were slaves living in St. Louis, Missouri in 1846. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had outlawed slavery in the territory north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River, but fugitive slaves could be caught in the territory and returned to their owners. States that were carved out of this territory were Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and eastern Minnesota. For the Scotts, they had lived in the free territory that would eventually become Minnesota.
President Thomas Jefferson received an offer from Napoleon Bonaparte to purchase the French territory west of the Mississippi River. Bonaparte had just endured a terrorizing and bloody revolution that created the independent island state of Haiti. Quick to rid himself of France’s North American holdings, Bonaparte made an offer that Jefferson could not refuse. In 1804, the territory of the United States had doubled.
Louisiana was the first state carved out of the Louisiana Purchase, joining the Union in 1812. As early as 1818, the Missouri Territory petitioned to become a state. A small group of New England abolitionists were concerned over the spread of slavery. Reaching a compromise, Missouri entered into the union as a slave state, while Maine entered the union as a free state. The idea was to ensure equal congressional power between slave-holding states and non-slave holding states.
Courts were established in Missouri once it entered into the Union. For several decades, slaves had used the courts to sue their owners for things promised by their owners such as wages, livestock, and freedom. When Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom, it was not an unprecedented act.
An army officer owned Dred Scott and his family. When he was transferred to an outpost in the Northwest Territory, he brought his slaves with him. The 1787 ordinance outlawed slavery, but the Scotts lived on a federal fort and remained in servitude. When the army officer moved to St. Louis, he again brought his slaves with him. Because the Scotts had lived in free territory, they believed that legally made them free. In 1846, they filed for their freedom. Twelve white jurors in a St. Louis court ruled that because the Scotts’ residence was in a free state, that made them free. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the January 1850 lower court’s ruling in 1852 and the Scotts again were enslaved.
Since the Scotts first sued for their freedom, the United States had annexed Texas and won territory from Mexico at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. The California Republic had organized and petitioned for statehood, entering the Union in 1850. New territory opened up west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. At question was where would slavery expand and how would Congress retain its equilibrium between slave states and free states.
Senators Henry Clay, from Kentucky, and Stephen Douglas, from Illinois, proposed a compromise. The 1850 compromise allowed new western territories to use the idea of popular sovereignty to allow settlers to decide if slavery could legally exist within their borders, and it enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it legal for slaveholders to hire agents to hunt down fugitive slaves that had escaped to free states and territories.
Lawyers for Dred Scott continued to appeal the Missouri Supreme Court decision. The case was argued in the United States Supreme Court and finally, in 1857 a 7-2 decision was reached. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney stated that, black men, regardless of their free or slave status, were not people. As such, they had no protections under the US Constitution and they had no right to even use the courts to sue for their freedom or anything else. Moreover, Congress had no legal right to control slavery in federal territories, which nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
The legal precedent set by the Taney court meant that black people, regardless if they were free or enslaved, had no protections under the law. Even with the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, that provided all citizens with equal protection under the law, it would be another 100 years before precedent was set that defined who was a citizen of the United States. The Taney decision was a contributing factor to both the onset of the American Civil War and the creation of the post-war Jim Crow Era.
Scott and his family were legally declared free, or manumitted, on May 26, 1857. Following the onset of tuberculosis, Scott died in St. Louis a free man on September 17, 1858. Dred Scott was interred in Wesleyan Cemetery. When the cemetery closed nine years later, Scott was placed in an unmarked plot in the Catholic-owned Calvary Cemetery. His gravesite was rediscovered in 1957 and a marker placed to commemorate the centennial of the case. People continue to visit his grave where they honor him by placing Lincoln pennies on his marker for good luck.