Dred Scott Case

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Dred Scott Case
Dred Scott Decision

Dred Scott Case
A Landmark Decision
Dred Scott v. Sanford: U.S. Supreme Court Decision
In 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit for their freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. This suit began an eleven-year legal fight that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a landmark decision declaring that Scott remain a slave. This decision contributed to rising tensions between the free and slave states just before the American Civil War. (See also Dred Scott Case and Decision, and Abolitionists and the American Civil War.

Dred Scott (1857)
Dred Scott.gif
Dred Scott in 1857

In March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared that all blacks -- slaves as well as free -- "were not and could never become citizens of the United States." The court also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, thus permitting slavery in all of the country's territories.
The case before the court was that of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott, a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri, had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom.
Taney -- a staunch supporter of slavery and intent on protecting southerners from northern aggression -- wrote in the Court's majority opinion that, because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The framers of the United States Constitution, he wrote, believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."
Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase, "all men are created equal," Taney reasoned that "it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration..."
Abolitionists were incensed. Although disappointed, Frederick Douglass, found a bright side to the decision and announced, "my hopes were never brighter than now." For Douglass, the decision would bring slavery to the attention of the nation and was a step toward slavery's ultimate destruction.
On June 16, 1858, at the Illinois Republican convention in Springfield, Abraham Lincoln commenced his bid for the U.S. Senate with a speech that would come to be known as the "House Divided" speech.
Lincoln believed that the recent Supreme Court decision on the Dred Scott case was part of a Democratic conspiracy that would lead to the legalization of slavery in all states. Referring to the court's decision which permitted Dred Scott to live in a free state and yet remain a slave, he said: "What Dred's Scott's master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free state."

Dred Scott Chronology

Dred Scott is born in Virginia as a slave of the Peter Blow family. He spent his life as a slave, and never learned to read or write.

United States purchases Louisiana from France, in what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase, extending federal sovereignty to an ill-defined territory west of the Mississippi.

United States takes formal possession of what is now Missouri.

After fierce debate, Congress admits Missouri as a slave state. The question of Missouri statehood sparks widespread disagreement over the expansion of slavery. The resolution, eventually known as the Missouri Compromise, permits Missouri to enter as a slave state along, and, with the free state of Maine; thus preserving a balance in the number of free and slave states. The Compromise also dictates that no territories above 36 30 latitude can enter the union as slave states. Missouri itself is located at the nexus of freedom and slavery. The neighboring state of Illinois had entered the union as a free state in 1819, while in subsequent years Congress admits Arkansas as a slave state and Iowa as a free state.

The Blow family moves to St. Louis, part of the wholesale migration of people from the southern states of the eastern seaboard to the newer slave states of the Mississippi Valley. The Blows sell Scott to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks just south of St. Louis. Over the next twelve years Scott accompanies Emerson to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where Congress prohibited slavery under the rules of the Missouri Compromise. During this time, Scott marries Harriet Robinson, also a slave. The Scotts later have two children. The Scotts are not alone in this movement. Slaves are constantly on the move, either forced to accompany their masters or sold as part of the ever-widening domestic slave trade. Slave states and free states, which had previously respected one another's laws on slavery, become increasingly hesitant to enforce those laws as the argument over the expansion of slavery becomes increasingly heated. Slaveholder's express particular opposition to legal precedents that permit slaves to demand their own freedom after being transported to places (whether other states or foreign countries) that prohibit slavery.

The Scott family returns to St. Louis with Dr. Emerson and his wife Irene.

John Emerson dies. Mrs. Emerson hires out Dred, Harriet, and their children to work for other families in St. Louis.

Dred and Harriet Scott sue Mrs. Emerson for their freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court.

The Circuit Court rules in favor of Mrs. Emerson, dismissing the Scotts' case but allowing the Scotts to file another suit.

The jury in a second trial decides that the Scotts deserve to be free, based on their years of residence in the non-slave territories of Wisconsin and Illinois.

Mrs. Emerson, not wanting to lose such valuable property, appeals the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. Lawyers on both sides agree that from now on appeals will be based on Dred's case alone, with findings applied equally to Harriet. The state Supreme Court overrules the Circuit Court decision and returns Scott to slavery.

Scott is supported by lawyers who opposed slavery and files suit in the U.S. Federal Court in St. Louis. The defendant in this case is Mrs. Emerson's brother, John Sanford, who has assumed responsibility for John Emerson's estate. As a New York resident and technically beyond the jurisdiction of the state court, Scott's lawyers can only file a suit against Sanford in the federal judicial system. Again the court rules against Scott.

Scott and his lawyers appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Scott v. Sanford the Court states that Scott should remain a slave, that as a slave he is not a citizen of the U.S. and thus not eligible to bring suit in a federal court, and that as a slave he is personal property and thus has never been free. The court further declares unconstitutional the provision in the Missouri Compromise that permitted Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories. In fact, the compromise is already under assault as a coalition of political leaders-some slaveholders, others westerners who resent the federal government's ability to dictate the terms of statehood-claim that territorial residents should be able to determine on what terms they enter the union. Consequently, the Missouri Compromise is repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act; the Missouri Compromise is later deemed unconstitutional. The decision in Scott v. Sanford greatly alarms the antislavery movement and intensifies the growing division of opinion within the United States. The newly-formed Republican Party, which opposes the expansion of slavery, vigorously criticizes the decision and the court. Mrs. Emerson remarries. Since her new husband opposes slavery, she returns Dred Scott and his family to the Blow family. The Blows give the Scotts their freedom.

Dred Scott dies of tuberculosis and is buried in St. Louis. He was buried in Wesleyan Cemetery at what is now the intersection of Grand and Laclede Avenues in St. Louis (now part of the campus of St. Louis University). In 1867, Wesleyan Cemetery closed and the bodies were exhumed and re-interred at other sites. Dred Scott's body was moved to an unmarked grave in Section 1, Lot No. 177, Calvary Cemetery, in north St. Louis County. In 1957 a marker was placed on Dred Scott's grave which reflects:

Abraham Lincoln is elected president in a political contest dominated by the discussion of slavery. South Carolina secedes from the Union, and the Civil War begins.

Sources: Washington University in St. Louis, University Libraries (Dred Scott Case Collection); PBS Online; Library of Congress.

Recommended Reading: The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. Description: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, The Dred Scott Case is a masterful examination of the most famous example of judicial failure--the case referred to as "the most frequently overturned decision in history." On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Supreme Court's decision against Dred Scott, a slave who maintained he had been emancipated as a result of having lived with his master in the free state of Illinois and in federal territory where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. The decision did much more than resolve the fate of an elderly black man and his family: Dred Scott v. Sanford was the first instance in which the Supreme Court invalidated a major piece of federal legislation. Continued below...

The decision declared that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the federal territories, thereby striking a severe blow at the legitimacy of the emerging Republican Party and intensifying the sectional conflict over slavery. This book represents a skillful review of the issues before America on the eve of the Civil War. One-third of the book deals directly with the case itself and the Court's decision, while the remainder puts the legal and judicial question of slavery into the broadest possible American context. Fehrenbacher discusses the legal bases of slavery, the debate over the Constitution, and the dispute over slavery and continental expansion. He also considers the immediate and long-range consequences of the decision. AWARDED 5 STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org

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Recommended Reading: Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents (The Bedford Series in History and Culture). Description: The only book on Dred Scott built around primary documents, this brief text examines the 1857 Supreme Court case - one of the most controversial and notorious judicial decisions in U.S. history - in which a slave unsuccessfully sued for his freedom. In addition to excerpts from each justice's opinion, contemporary editorials and newspaper articles, and pertinent excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the book includes a comprehensive introduction that provides background information on the slavery controversy in antebellum America. Helpful editorial features include headnotes, maps, illustrations, a chronology, questions for consideration, a selected bibliography, and an index.


Recommended Reading: Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America (Simon & Schuster) (February 5, 2008) (Hardcover). Description: In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was known as a successful Illinois lawyer who had achieved some prominence in state politics as a leader in the new Republican Party. Two years later, he was elected president and was on his way to becoming the greatest chief executive in American history. What carried this one-term congressman from obscurity to fame was the campaign he mounted for the United States Senate against the country's most formidable politician, Stephen A. Douglas, in the summer and fall of 1858. Lincoln challenged Douglas directly in one of his greatest speeches -- "A house divided against itself cannot stand" -- and confronted Douglas on the questions of slavery and the inviolability of the Union in seven fierce debates. Continued below... 

As this brilliant narrative by the prize-winning Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo dramatizes, Lincoln would emerge a predominant national figure, the leader of his party, the man who would bear the burden of the national confrontation. Of course, the great issue between Lincoln and Douglas was slavery. Douglas was the champion of "popular sovereignty," of letting states and territories decide for themselves whether to legalize slavery. Lincoln drew a moral line, arguing that slavery was a violation both of natural law and of the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. No majority could ever make slavery right, he argued. Lincoln lost that Senate race to Douglas, though he came close to toppling the "Little Giant," whom almost everyone thought was unbeatable. Guelzo's Lincoln and Douglas brings alive their debates and this whole year of campaigns and underscores their centrality in the greatest conflict in American history. The encounters between Lincoln and Douglas engage a key question in American political life: What is democracy's purpose? Is it to satisfy the desires of the majority? Or is it to achieve a just and moral public order? These were the real questions in 1858 that led to the Civil War. They remain questions for Americans today.


Recommended Reading: Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President's War Powers, by James F. Simon (Simon & Schuster). Publishers Weekly: This surprisingly taut and gripping book by NYU law professor Simon (What Kind of Nation) examines the limits of presidential prerogative during the Civil War. Lincoln and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney saw eye to eye on certain matters; both, for example, disliked slavery. But beginning in 1857, when Lincoln criticized Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case, the pair began to spar. They diverged further once Lincoln became president when Taney insisted that secession was constitutional and preferable to bloodshed, and blamed the Civil War on Lincoln. Continued below...

In 1861, Taney argued that Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was illegal. This holding was, Simon argues, "a clarion call for the president to respect the civil liberties of American citizens." In an 1862 group of cases, Taney joined a minority opinion that Lincoln lacked the authority to order the seizure of Southern ships. Had Taney had the chance, suggests Simon, he would have declared the Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional; he and Lincoln agreed that the Constitution left slavery up to individual states, but Lincoln argued that the president's war powers trumped states' rights. Simon's focus on Lincoln and Taney makes for a dramatic, charged narrative—and the focus on presidential war powers makes this historical study extremely timely.


Recommended Reading: The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (Paperback), by David M. Potter. Review: Professor Potter treats an incredibly complicated and misinterpreted time period with unparalleled objectivity and insight. Potter masterfully explains the climatic events that led to Southern secession – a greatly divided nation – and the Civil War: the social, political and ideological conflicts; culture; American expansionism, sectionalism and popular sovereignty; economic and tariff systems; and slavery. In other words, Potter places under the microscope the root causes and origins of the Civil War. He conveys the subjects in easy to understand language to edify the reader's understanding (it's not like reading some dry old history book). Delving beyond surface meanings and interpretations, this book analyzes not only the history, but the historiography of the time period as well. Continued below…

Professor Potter rejects the historian's tendency to review the period with all the benefits of hindsight. He simply traces the events, allowing the reader a step-by-step walk through time, the various views, and contemplates the interpretations of contemporaries and other historians. Potter then moves forward with his analysis. The Impending Crisis is the absolute gold-standard of historical writing… This simply is the book by which, not only other antebellum era books, but all history books should be judged.


Recommended Reading: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States) (Hardcover: 928 pages). Review: The newest volume in the renowned Oxford History of the United States-- A brilliant portrait of an era that saw dramatic transformations in American life The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. The series includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, two New York Times bestsellers, and winners of the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. Now, in What Hath God Wrought, historian Daniel Walker Howe illuminates the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, an era when the United States expanded to the Pacific and won control over the richest part of the North American continent. Continued below…

Howe's panoramic narrative portrays revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated the extension of the American empire. Railroads, canals, newspapers, and the telegraph dramatically lowered travel times and spurred the spread of information. These innovations prompted the emergence of mass political parties and stimulated America's economic development from an overwhelmingly rural country to a diversified economy in which commerce and industry took their place alongside agriculture. In his story, the author weaves together political and military events with social, economic, and cultural history. He examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party, but contends that John Quincy Adams and other Whigs--advocates of public education and economic integration, defenders of the rights of Indians, women, and African-Americans--were the true prophets of America's future. He reveals the power of religion to shape many aspects of American life during this period, including slavery and antislavery, women's rights and other reform movements, politics, education, and literature. Howe's story of American expansion -- Manifest Destiny -- culminates in the bitterly controversial but brilliantly executed war waged against Mexico to gain California and Texas for the United States. By 1848, America had been transformed. What Hath God Wrought provides a monumental narrative of this formative period in United States history.

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