Causes of the American Civil War for Kids - The Dred Scott Decision by the Supreme Court Illustration

Causes of the American Civil War for Kids - Who was Dred Scott?

In the 1800s, shortly before the Civil War, an Army doctor from Missouri traveled to various army posts in the United States. He brought his slave with him, a slave named Dred Scott. Together, they even traveled to the western territories. At the time, the United States was divided into free states and slave states. Northern states were called "free states" because slavery was prohibited. The states in the South were called "slave states" because slavery was legal. The territories were starting to apply for statehood. Before they even applied, Congress had banned slavery in some territories and allowed it in others. The country was geographically and politically divided by slavery. 

Most Northern states at the time had laws that said if a slave entered a free state or a free territory with his master, then the slave would be free. Dred Scott had spent years in free states and free territories with his owner, the Army doctor. Backed by abolitionists, Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. It took 10 years for his case to reach the Supreme Court. In 1856, his case was finally heard. At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court was filled with justices who believed in the Southern way of life, which was built on slavery. But the Supreme Court justices were fair. Their decision was based on the law as established by the U.S. Constitution.

After hearing Dred Scott's case, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled:

1. Congress never had the right to ban slavery in U.S. territories because the U.S. Constitution protected people from being deprived of life, liberty or property. Slaves, like cows, were property. (This was changed when the 13th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1865 ending slavery forever.)

2. No black man, free or slave, was a U.S. citizen; therefore a black man had no right to sue in federal court, and for that matter "had no rights which a white man was bound to respect."  (This was changed when the 14th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1868 making African Americans citizens.)

Southern states felt vindicated. This is what they had been saying all along. In their opinion, and now in the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court, they were not abusing rights; they were respecting the law. 

Northern states were furious. The outrage against this decision helped to fan the flames of abolitionism. People in Northern states who had felt that slavery was not really their problem, it was the South's problem, suddenly joined the Republican Party. In 1860, the Republican candidate for president was Abraham Lincoln.

The Supreme Court had hoped their decision would quiet the many arguments raging across the country about the position slaves held under the law. Instead, their decision helped to get Lincoln elected president. Voters turned out in the North in record numbers. The Dred Scott decision was a major event leading up to the Civil War, as was the election of Abraham Lincoln.

The Dred Scott Decision

Causes of the Civil War


The U.S. Constitution and Slavery

The 13th Amendment

The 14th Amendment

The 15th Amendment

Slavery in America

For Teachers

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