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

Supreme Court of the United States
60 U.S. 393 (How.)
Argued : February 11 14, 1856, February 15 18, 1856
Decided : March 6, 1857

Decision written by Associate Justice Peter Vivian Daniel ... page 4

Thus Vattel, in the preliminary chapter to his Treatise on the Law of Nations, says:

Nations or States are bodies politic, societies of men united together for the purpose of promoting their mutual safety and advantage by the joint efforts of their mutual strength. Such a society has her affairs and her interests, she deliberates and takes resolutions in common, thus becoming a moral person who possesses an understanding and a will peculiar to herself.

Again, in the first chapter of the first book of the Treatise just quoted, the same writer, after repeating his definition of a State, proceeds to remark that,

from the very design that induces a number of men to form a society which has its common interests and which is to act in concert, it is necessary that there should be established a public authority to order and direct what is to be done by each in relation to the end of the association. This political authority is the sovereignty.

Again, this writer remarks: "The authority of all over each member essentially belongs to the body politic, or the State."

By this same writer it is also said:

The citizens are the members of the civil society, bound to this society by certain duties, and subject to its authority; they equally participate in its advantages. The natives or natural-born citizens are those born in the country of parents who are citizens. As society [p477] cannot perpetuate itself otherwise than by the children of the citizens, those children naturally follow the condition of their parents, and succeed to all their rights.


I say, to be of the country, it is necessary to be born of a person who is a citizen, for if he be born there of a foreigner, it will be only the place of his birth, and not his country. The inhabitants, as distinguished from citizens, are foreigners who are permitted to settle and stay in the country.

Vattel, Book 1, cap. 19, p. 101.

From the views here expressed, and they seem to be unexceptionable, it must follow that, with the slave, with one devoid of rights or capacities, civil or political, there could be no pact that one thus situated could be no party to or actor in, the association of those possessing free will, power, discretion. He could form no part of the design, no constituent ingredient or portion of a society based upon common, that is, upon equal interests and powers. He could not at the same time be the sovereign and the slave.

But it has been insisted in argument that the emancipation of a slave, effected either by the direct act and assent of the master or by causes operating in contravention of his will, produces a change in the status or capacities of the slave such as will transform him from a mere subject of property into a being possessing a social, civil, and political equality with a citizen. In other words, will make him a citizen of the State within which he was, previously to his emancipation, a slave.

It is difficult to conceive by what magic the mere surcease or renunciation of an interest in a subject of property, by an individual possessing that interest, can alter the essential character of that property with respect to persons or communities unconnected with such renunciation. Can it be pretended that an individual in any State, by his single act, though voluntarily or designedly performed, yet without the co-operation or warrant of the Government, perhaps in opposition to its policy or its guaranties, can create a citizen of that State? Much more emphatically may it be asked how such a result could be accomplished by means wholly extraneous and entirely foreign to the Government of the State? The argument thus urged must lead to these extraordinary conclusions. It is regarded at once as wholly untenable, and as unsustained by the direct authority or by the analogies of history.

The institution of slavery, as it exists and has existed from the period of its introduction into the United States, though more humane and mitigated in character than was the same institution either under the republic or the empire of Rome, bears, both in its tenure and in the simplicity incident to the [p478] mode of its exercise, a closer resemblance to Roman slavery than it does to the condition of villanage, as it formerly existed in England. Connected with the latter, there were peculiarities, from custom or positive regulation, which varied it materially from the slavery of the Romans or from slavery at any period within the United States.

But with regard to slavery amoungst the Romans, it is by no means true that emancipation, either during the republic or the empire, conferred, by the act itself, or implied, the status or the rights of citizenship.

The proud title of Roman citizen, with the immunities and rights incident thereto, and as contradistinguished alike from the condition of conquered subjects or of the lower grades of native domestic residents, was maintained throughout the duration of the republic, and until a late period of the eastern empire, and at last was in effect destroyed less by an elevation of the inferior classes than by the degradation of the free, and the previous possessors of rights and immunities civil and political, to the indiscriminate abasement incident to absolute and simple despotism.

By the learned and elegant historian of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, we are told that,

In the decline of the Roman empire, the proud distinctions of the republic were gradually abolished, and the reason or instinct of Justinian completed the simple form of an absolute monarchy. The emperor could not eradicate the popular reverence which always waits on the possession of hereditary wealth or the memory of famous ancestors. He delighted to honor with titles and emoluments his generals, magistrates, and senators, and his precarious indulgence communicated some rays of their glory to their wives and children. But, in the eye of the law, all Roman citizens were equal, and all subjects of the empire were citizens of Rome. That inestimable character was degraded to an obsolete and empty name. T he voice of a Roman could no longer enact his laws, or create the annual ministers of his powers; his constitutional rights might have checked the arbitrary will of a master, and the bold adventurer from Germany or Arabia was admitted with equal favor to the civil and military command which the citizen alone had been once entitled to assume over the conquests of his fathers. The first Caesars had scrupulously guarded the distinction of ingenuous and servile birth, which was decided by the condition of the mother. The slaves who were liberated by a generous master immediately entered into the middle class of libertini, or freedmen, but they could never be enfranchised from the duties of obedience and gratitude, whatever were the fruits of [p479] their industry, their patron and his family inherited the third part, or even the whole, of their fortune, if they died without children and without a testament. Justinian respected the rights of patrons, but his indulgence removed the badge of disgrace from the two inferior orders of freedmen; whoever ceased to be a slave obtained without reserve or delay the station of a citizen, and at length the dignity of an ingenuous birth was created or supposed by the omnipotence of the emperor.[1]

The above account of slavery and its modifications will be found in strictest conformity with the Institutes of Justinian. Thus, in book 1st, title 3d, it is said: "The first general division of persons in respect to their rights is into freemen and slaves." The same title, sec. 4th: "Slaves are born such, or become so. They are born such of bondwomen; they become so either by the law of nations, as by capture, or by the civil law." Section 5th: "In the condition of slaves there is no diversity, but among free persons there are many. Thus some are ingenui or freemen, others libertini or freedmen."

Tit. 4th. DE INGENUIS. "A freeman is one who is born free by being born in matrimony, of parents who both are free, or both freed, or of parents one free and the other freed. But one born of a free mother, although the father be a slave or unknown, is free."

Tit. 5th. DE LIBERTINIS. "Freedmen are those who have been manumitted from just servitude." ... more on Judge Daniel's decision in the Dred Scott case

Majority Decision
Daniel HOME


World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) rated valid CSS Level 2.1 code
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) rated valid XHTML 1.0 Strict code