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DRED SCOTT DECISION: Can a Slave Sue for His Freedom?
In the 1830s, a slave named Dred Scott resided for several years with his owner in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory, both of which prohibited slavery. Scott later claimed that his having lived in those free jurisdictions made him a free man, and, in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he sued his owner to gain his freedom. Scott’s supporters argued that it was common practice for courts to grant slaves their freedom on the basis of having resided for a period of time in a free jurisdiction. They also argued that, although Scott didn’t possess all of the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, he did have the right to bring suit in federal court. Scott’s opponents, however, argued that his claims of residence in two free jurisdictions had no basis. They further argued that he had no right to sue for his freedom in court since, as a black person, he could never be considered a U.S. citizen and thus could not exercise any of the rights held by citizens.
Let your students get the facts and decide for themselves: Does a slave have a right to sue for his freedom? Or does a slave have no legal standing even to file a lawsuit? Be sure to check out Issues & Controversies in American History’s clear and unbiased examination of the Dred Scott decision this month.
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