Methods of Constitutional Interpretation in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)

Essay Question, due February 2: What methods of interpretation does the Taney Court use to: 1) rule on the question of Dred Scott’s citizenship; and 2) strike down the Missouri Compromise? Were both of these issues decided by the same method?

There are certain methods of constitutional interpretation that the Supreme Court of United States can use to decide on cases brought before it. First, “Text and Plain Meaning” refers to the method of interpretation which relies on the provisions of the constitution and suggests that the constitution is the supreme law which should not be contradicted by any law of the congress.

Secondly, Intent of the Framers and Adoption History is a method which considers the history and experience of the court as well as the framers of the constitution in the past.

These two methods of constitutional interpretation were used by Taney to decide on the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. The first method, Text and Plain Meaning, was used to strike down the Missouri Compromise while “Intent of the Framers and Adoption History” was used to decide on the citizenship of Scott.

In Dred Scott v. Sanford, Scott sued Sanford in the Supreme Court seeking for freedom from slavery together with his family. John Sanford, the defendant, claimed that the court rule on the case because Dred was not a citizen of any State in America but an African with purely an African ancestry. Dred denied these claims, arguing that he was emancipated since he was taken to a free state of Louisiana by his former master. In regards to this matter of citizenship, the court ruled that Scott being a person of African descent was not to be considered as a citizen of any state. This ruling was based on a number of ways of reasoning based on the Chief Justice’s method of constitutional interpretation.

Taney interpreted the constitution in terms of the intent of its framers and the adoption history of the constitution. He argued that nothing in the history of the nation and the law showed that Scott was a citizen of United States (FindLaw, 2015). The Chief Justice read through the history of slave and Negro law to determine whether the federal law would ascertain Scott as a citizen of any American state before the ratification of the constitution. Based on the statements made by Charles Pinckney, Taney claimed that the authors of the constitution had considered Blacks as inferior beings who were not fit to engage with whites in political and social relations.

In this case, the Taney interprets the constitution in terms of its framers and historical situations. Rosenthal argues from the ratification debates of the constitution, defenders and advocates of the constitution were sensible and just. He says, “Looking at the subject as Hamilton did, and Mr. Justice IREDELL did, in the light of History and experience and the established order of things…” (p.4). This statement was made in regards to the case of Chistolm v. Georgia whereby the judge based his ruling on the adoption history of the constitution. Taney used the same approach to decide on the case of Scott v. Stanford. History of the constitution and the intent of its framers carried a heavy weight on the ruling.

Concerning the Missouri Compromise, the Justice used the text and plain meaning of the constitution to decide on the case. Taney argued that the constitution carried more weight on the case than congress laws. Specifically, Missouri Compromise was beyond the congress to enact because the power of the congress to take hold of territories and create governments therein was intended only for the Northwestern Territories (FindLaw, 2015). Therefore, the state of Louisiana which was acquired after the constitution was signed did not have the power to enact such laws that may contradict with the provisions of the constitution. In this case, the act of Congress was unconstitutional.

This method of interpretation was considered by Rosenthal as a method of “Text and Plain Meaning.” Rosenthal suggests that conclusive declarations and direct and explicit declarations of the constitution are supreme over other laws (p. 2). Therefore, other laws that contradict the constitution are considered void. In the case of Scott v. Stanford, the Missouri Compromise was one of the acts of congress that were unconstitutional, and could not be admissible in court.


References list

FindLaw (2015). Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856). Accessed January 30, 2014 from   

Rosenthal (2015). Theories of Constitutional Interpretation.

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