The Fifth Amendment and Dred Scott



Dred Scott by Louis Schultze ca 1887












In 1791, when and Congress approved James Madison’s Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, American citizens were secure in their rights and privileges. The Bill says nothing about slaves.

The Fifth Amendment protects citizens from being tried twice for same offense and from being compelled to testify against himself or herself (“taking the fifth”). It also explicitly guarantees that the Federal Government cannot deprive individuals of “life, liberty, or property,” without due process, and implicitly guarantees each citizen equal protection under the laws.

Dred Scott, a slave, moved with his master, Dr. John Emerson, from Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois and Minnesota. While living in free territory, Scott considered himself a free man, but when he returned to Missouri, he returned to slavery. In 1856, in order to obtain his freedom, he sued his new owner, John Sanford. In March 1857, in Dred v. Sanford, the United States Supreme Court decided, 7 to 2, that slaves were property and that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because, in denying slave owners the right to take their property into free states, it violated the owners’ Fifth Amendment rights not to have private property taken from them without just compensation. The Court further declared that no person of African descent, whether free or enslaved, was a United States citizen, entitled to the protections of the Constitution. While “The Dred Scott Decision” was lauded in the South, it outraged many in the North. The decision strongly influenced the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, and led, ultimately, to the Civil War.

Posted in Slavery and The Constitution.

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