Revisiting Dred Scott vs. Sandford

Was the SCOTUS’s most infamous ruling really off the mark?

Andrew Katz
4 min readFeb 16, 2022


Dred Scott/Wikimedia Commons

…They had no rights the white man was bound to respect…

II see this quote a lot, especially in the writing of anti-racists. But far-right, “race realists” cite it, too. It’s from paragraph 36 of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s infamous 1858 rejection of Dred Scott’s bid for freedom.

That clause is cited to demonstrate that black people in the time of Scott v. Sandford, whether born free or having obtained their freedom by other means, had no enforceable rights.

That is not what it means at all.

Wikimedia Commons

Taney wrote it as background, describing the circumstances under which slavery originated in North America. The complete sentence reads: They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.

It was, he contended, at that point—contemporaneous with adoption of the US Constitution and before—the negro had no rights vis a viz whites.

While Scott v. Sandford bafflingly declares that the US Constitution did not intend black people of any status to be citizens of the United States (while allowing they might be citizens of their individual states), it does not attempt to strip them of all enforceable rights. Doing so would be wildly at variance with Taney’s concurrence in the United States vs. the Amistad, which held that black African captives aboard the slave ship Amistad had the right to rise up, seize the ship, kill the white crew members and return to their homes in Africa. Although the Africans were properly residents of Sierra Leone, as far as the federal government was concerned their status was no different from that of any other free black person on US soil.

If they had enforceable rights, so did the rest.



Andrew Katz

LA born & raised, now I live upstate. I hate snow. I write on healthcare, politics & history. Hobbies are woodworking & singing Xmas carols with nonsense lyrics