Many slaves did sue for their freedom, but these freedom suits did not challenge slavery itself. They alleged that the slave was being unlawfully held in bondage.
In one 1735 case, Re Negro James, a slave named James petitioned a Massachusetts court for his future freedom, since his master’s will stated that James would be freed when the master’s wife died. The master’s son, who felt he owned James, fought the petition.
But in 1737, after his mistress died, James was finally declared free.
In 1846, a Virginia-born slave named Dred Scott sued for his and his family’s freedom, on the grounds that they lived on free soil (his master had moved into a free state). His case, Scott v. Sanford, eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But in 1857, the Court ruled against Scott. The ruling stated that slaves owned on free soil were still slaves, and added that Scott, because he was black, was not qualified to sue.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote, in his opinion, that black women and men were an “inferior class of beings” who “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”