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Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, front page, June 27, 1857

Dred Scott was an enslaved African American owned by John Sanford in Missouri. Scott sued Sanford for his freedom after they resided for several years in Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited. A Missouri state circuit court granted Scott his freedom, but the Missouri Supreme Court overturned that decision. Scott then took his case to the federal courts.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Congress and the Court Determine African American Citizenship

in 1857 the supreme court decided Dred Scott vs. Sandford (sic), a historic case in which Scott, an enslaved African American, sued for his freedom. The court ruled that enslaved individuals and their descendants were not citizens and couldn’t sue in federal courts. It affirmed slaveholders’ rights in western territories, heightening tensions that sparked the Civil War. During Reconstruction, Congress protected African Americans’ rights through legislation and constitutional amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment nullified the Dred Scott decision by constitutionally guaranteeing African Americans’ citizenship.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

U.S. Constitution, Fourteenth Amendment