Overturning Dred Scott: Race, Rights and Citizenship in Antebellum America


ACLS Fellowship Program


History, Afro-American and African Studies, and Law


This project presents a new chapter in the history of US citizenship, one that turns on the status of free African Americans. On citizenship, the Constitution was silent. By the 1850s, an alternative jurisprudence had emerged. Lawmakers debated the status of free African Americans in legislatures. Black activists argued in political meetings and the press. In courthouses, judges wrestled with African American claims. Free black people used civil proceedings to carve out rights. The case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, has long substituted for an understanding of race, law, and citizenship in the 1850s. This book tells a new story about the terms of the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. Contests over civil rights were not new in Reconstruction. Citizenship had been claimed, and sometimes won in the 1850s.