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Legal History

A guide to some important dates in legal history.

MARCH

6 - Dred Scott Decision Announced by the U.S. Supreme Court

The infamous Dred Scott case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court after winding through trials and appeals in both state and federal courts. By the time it reached the Court, the main issues were whether the Court had jurisdiction and whether Scott was a citizen. Seven of the nine justices who heard the case were appointees of pro-slavery presidents, and of these, five were from slave-holding families. The majority opinion was read by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery. The opinion held because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, legislation which restricted slavery in certain territories, was unconstitutional. The repercussions from this decision led to Abraham Lincoln’s subsequent election and the South's secession from the Union.

9 - U.S. Supreme Court Rules on the Amistad Case

The Amistad case is a seminal case in the history of slavery in America. A group of men captured in West Africa and being transported to America revolted and took control of the transport ship, the Amistad. Intending to sail back to Africa, the ship was instead diverted to New York where the men were taken into custody. The case made its way through the court system with abolitionist lawyers representing the captured men. John Quincy Adams (sixth President of the United States 1825-1829) joined the legal team of abolitionists and presented a powerful argument to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking the release of the captives. On March 9th, 1841 the Supreme Court ruled that the men had been illegally enslaved. With the financial assistance of the abolitionists, the men of the Amistad were then able to return to West Africa. The story of the Amistad was made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg.