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185719th Century: Antebellum Laws

Regulating Freedom, Restricting Citizenship

Illustration of Dred Scott and Family

Raising a Slave Patrol

In the decades before the Civil War, both local and national laws maintained slavery. Locally, enslaved and free African Americans were controlled by Slave Codes and Black Codes. Slave Codes prohibited enslaved people from reading, writing, marrying, and even practicing their faith. Black Codes across the country required that free Black residents regularly register their freedom by paying a fee and securing the testimony of a white person to vouch for their credibility. Through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the federal government required free citizens to return fugitive enslaved Black people back to their enslavers. Black people defied and challenged these laws.

Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1847, claiming that living in free states while hired out by his enslaver made him a free man. Dred Scott v. Sanford was tried in the United States Supreme Court in 1857. In the majority decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney cited the Constitution and wrote that Black people had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that they were reduced to slavery for [their] benefit. An enslaved person was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.

The Dred Scott decision also determined that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was illegal, and therefore slavery could spread across the expanding nation. This ruling, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Black Codes and Slave Codes, and other antebellum laws like the Three-Fifths Compromise built on legal precedents set during the colonial era and in the nation’s founding documents.

Raising a Slave Patrol