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The U.S. Supreme Court's -- Dred Scott Decision

* Copyright © 1998 Lisa Cozzens (credit/link at bottom of page)
Courtesy of The Freeman Institute

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America in 1857

   America in 1857 was, as Kenneth Stampp put it, "a Nation on the Brink." Relationships between the Northern and Southern states had been strained for decades, but during the 1840's and especially the 1850's, the situation exploded. The Compromise of 1850 served as a clear warning that the slavery issue, relatively dormant since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, had returned. As territories carved out of the Mexican cessions of 1848 applied for statehood, they stirred a passionate and often violent debate over the expansion of the South's "peculiar institution." Proslavery and antislavery forces clashed frequently and fatally in "Bleeding Kansas," while the presidential election of 1856 turned ugly when southern states threatened secession if a candidate from the antislavery Republican party won. Into this charged atmosphere stepped a black slave from Missouri named Dred Scott.

Case Background

   Dred Scott's beginnings were quite humble. Born somewhere in Virginia, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with his owners in 1830 and was sold to Dr. John Emerson sometime between 1831 and 1833. Emerson, as an Army doctor, was a frequent traveler, so between his sale to Emerson and Emerson's death in late 1843, Scott lived for extended periods of time in Fort Armstrong, Illinois, Fort Snelling, Wisconsin Territory, Fort Jessup, Louisiana, and in St. Louis. During his travels, Scott lived for a total of seven years in areas closed to slavery; Illinois was a free state and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had closed the Wisconsin Territory to slavery. When Scott's decade-long fight for freedom began on April 6, 1846, he lived in St. Louis and was the property of Emerson's wife.

   The famous Scott v. Sandford case, like its plaintiff, had relatively insignificant origins. Scott filed a declaration on April 6, 1846, stating that on April 4, Mrs. Emerson had "beat, bruised, and ill-treated him" before imprisoning him for twelve hours. Scott also declared that he was free by virtue of his residence at Fort Armstrong and Fort Snelling. He had strong legal backing for this declaration; the Supreme Court of Missouri had freed many slaves who had traveled with their masters in free states. In the Missouri Supreme Court's 1836 Rachel v. Walker ruling, it decided that Rachel, a slave taken to Fort Snelling and to Prairie du Chien in Illinois, was free. Despite these precedents, Mrs. Emerson won the first Scott v. Emerson trial by slipping through a technical loophole; Scott took the second trial by closing the loophole. In 1850, the case reached the Missouri Supreme Court, the same court that had freed Rachel just fourteen years earlier. Unfortunately for Scott, the intervening fourteen years had been important ones in terms of sectional conflict. The precedents in his favor were the work of "liberal-minded judges who were predisposed to favor freedom and whose opinions seemed to reflect the older view of enlightened southerners that slavery was, at best, a necessary evil." By the early 1850's, however, sectional conflict had arisen again and uglier than ever, and most Missourians did not encourage the freeing of slaves. Even judicially Scott was at a disadvantage; the United States Supreme Court's Strader v. Graham decision (1851) set some precedents that were unfavorable to Scott, and two of the three justices who made the final decision in Scott's appearance before the Missouri Supreme Court were proslavery. As would be expected, they ruled against Scott in 1852, with the third judge dissenting. Scott's next step was to take his case out of the state judicial system and into the federal judicial system by bringing it to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Missouri.





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In the Federal Judicial System

   In entering the federal judicial system, the Scott case underwent a metamorphosis that would prove to be very important at the conclusion of the case. Most evident was the change in the defendant. Mrs. Emerson had moved to Massachusetts and remarried, leaving Scott and his case to her brother, John F.A. Sanford, still living in St. Louis. Also, the Scott v. Emerson case in the state judicial system was clearly a genuine suit between two parties; each side's purpose was to win the case. The same cannot be said of Scott v. Sandford. "Dred Scott v. Sandford," wrote Don Fehrenbacher,  "was either a genuine suit, or a counterfeit designed for abolitionist purposes, or part of a proslavery plot that succeeded." This uncertainty over the true purpose of the case later made Republican charges that the case was a conspiracy designed to help the expansion of slavery even easier to believe.

   Whatever the true intents of the two parties were, they met in 1854 in the United States Circuit Court. Judge Robert W. Wells, "a slaveholder who nevertheless regarded slavery as a barrier to progress," presided over the trial. Sanford's first strategy was to prove that Scott was not a citizen of Missouri because he was the descendant of African slaves, but Wells ruled that because he resided in Missouri, Scott was enough of a citizen to be able to bring suit in a federal court. Sanford then used the same line of reasoning that had worked in front of the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing that even if Scott had gained his freedom while residing in Illinois, he had regained his slave status upon returning to Missouri. This defense proved successful once again, and the jury decided in favor of Sanford.

   The next step for Scott was to take his case to the highest tribunal in the country, the United States Supreme Court. Before he did so, however, he needed to find a suitable attorney. Fortunately, Montgomery Blair--a Missourian himself, a highly respected lawyer in Washington, and a supporter of the Free Soil party--agreed to take Scott's case without expecting payment. The Supreme Court first heard the case of Scott v. Sandford in early 1856, but ordered a re-argument for the next term, perhaps because a decision would have come on the eve of the 1856 presidential election and would have forced each candidate to agree or disagree with the Court on a highly volatile issue. This would not be the last time politics intruded on the Dred Scott case.

   Until it came before the Supreme Court, Scott's case had not attracted much attention, either public or within the other branches of government. By early 1856, however, Congress had renewed the debate over Congressional power to regulate slavery in the territories in light of the bloody conflicts in Kansas. Both sides began to view the issue as a decision for the Supreme Court, and not for Congress, to make. As Senator Albert G. Brown, a Democrat from Mississippi, said on July 2, 1856:

   My friend from Michigan [Senator Lewis Cass] and myself differ very widely as to what are the powers of a Territorial Legislature - he believing that they can exercise sovereign rights, and I believing no such thing; he contending that they have a right to exclude slavery, and I not admitting the proposition; but both of us concurring in the opinion that it is a question to be decided by the courts, and not by Congress.

   A few weeks later, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican from Illinois agreed: 

   I grant you that an unconstitutional act is not a law; but I do not ask, and will not take your [Democrats'] construction of the Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States is the tribunal to decide such questions, and we will submit to its decisions; and if you do also, there will be an end of the matter.

   "When re-argument [of the case] before the Court began on December 15," wrote Kenneth Stampp, "the potentially broad political significance of the case had become evident, and public interest in it had increased considerably." Indeed, "by Christmas 1856, Dred Scott's name was probably familiar to most Americans who followed the course of national affairs."


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   When the U. S. Supreme Court  met for the first time since the re-argument to discuss the case on February 14, 1857, it favored a moderate decision that ruled in favor of Sanford but did not consider the larger issues of Negro citizenship and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. The majority chose Justice Nelson as the writer of a decision that avoided these important but highly controversial issues, and Nelson went to work on it. When Nelson presented his opinion to the majority, however, he discovered that his "majority" opinion turned out to be the opinion of only himself.  The Court elected to throw out Nelson's decision and instead chose Chief Justice Roger B. Taney as the writer of the true majority opinion for the court, an opinion that would include everything under consideration in the case, including Negro citizenship and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. According to Justice Catron, one of the members of the majority, "the court majority. . .had been `forced up' to its change of plan by the determination of [Justices] Curtis and McLean to present extensive dissenting opinions discussing all aspects of the case."  The majority decided that if the dissenters covered all the issues, they must also. Ironically, the two most antislavery justices may have forced a more proslavery opinion than what the majority originally planned to decide.

   By mid-February 1857, many well-informed Americans were aware that the conclusion of the Scott v. Sandford case was close at hand. President-elect James Buchanan contacted some of his friends on the Supreme Court starting in early February; he asked if the Court had reached a decision in the case, for he needed to know what he should say about the territorial issue in his inaugural address on March 4. By inauguration day 1857, Buchanan knew what the outcome of the Supreme Court's decision would be and took the opportunity to throw his support to the Court in his inaugural address:

   A difference of opinion has arisen in regard to the point of time when the people of a Territory shall decide this question [of slavery] for themselves.

   This is, happily, a matter of but little practical importance. Besides, it is a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled. To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be.

   Just two days after Buchanan's inauguration, on March 6, 1857, the nine justices filed into the courtroom in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, lead by Chief Justice Taney. Taney was almost 80 years old, always physically feeble, and even weaker as a result of the effort he had put forth to write the two-hour-long opinion; therefore, he spoke in a low voice that Republicans deemed appropriate for such a "shameful decision." He first addressed the question of Negro citizenship, not only that of slaves but also that of free blacks:
   Can a Negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?

   One of the privileges reserved for citizens by the Constitution, argued Taney, was the "privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified by the Constitution." Taney's opinion stated that Negroes, even free Negroes, were not citizens of the United States, and that therefore Scott, as a Negro, did not even have the privilege of being able to sue in a federal court. Taney then turned to the question of the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. The territories acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Taney stated, were dependent upon the national government, and the government could not act outside its framework as set forth in the Constitution. Congress, for example, could not deny the citizens of the new territory freedom of speech. Similarly, Congress could not deprive the citizens of the territory of "life, liberty, or property without due process of law," according to the Fifth Amendment. Taney continued: 

   And an act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular territory of the United States, and who had committed no offense against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.

   The Constitution made no distinction between slaves and other types of property. Taney reasoned that the Missouri Compromise deprived slaveholding citizens of their property in the form of slaves and that therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Scott's case had one last hope: the Chief Justice could decide that Scott was free because of his stay in the free state of Illinois. Taney made no such decision, instead stating that "the status of slaves who had been taken to free States or territories and who had afterwards returned depended on the law of the State where they resided when they brought suit." Scott had brought suit in Missouri and hence he was still a slave because Missouri was a slave state. Taney ruled that the case be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and sent back to the lower court with instructions for that court to dismiss the case for the same reason, therefore upholding the Missouri Supreme Court's ruling in favor of Sanford.

* Cozzens, Lisa. "Brown v. Board of Education." African American History. Lisa Cozzen's Web Site (25 May 1998).

-------------------- DRED SCOTT: A CHRONOLOGY --------------------

* 1799 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.
* 1803 United States purchases Louisiana from France, extending federal sovereignty to an ill-defined territory west of the Mississippi.
* 1804 United States takes formal possession of what is now Missouri.
* 1820 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 with the free state of Maine, preserving a balance in the number of free and slave states. The Compromise also dictates that no territories above 36o 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.
* 1830 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 surgeo n 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 ti me, 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 s lave 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. Slaveholders express pa rticular 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.
* 1842 The Scott family returns to St. Louis with Dr. Emerson and his wife Irene.
* 1843 John Emerson dies. Mrs. Emerson hires out Dred, Harriet, and their children to work for other families in St. Louis.
* 1846 Dred and Harriet Scott sue Mrs. Emerson for their freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court.
* 1847 The Circuit Court rules in favor of Mrs. Emerson, dismissing the Scotts' case but allowing the Scotts to refile their suit.
* 1850 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.
* 1852 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.
* 1853-54 Scott, supported by lawyers who opposed slavery, 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 Yor k 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.
* 1856-1857 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, o thers 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. The decision in Scott v. Sanford greatly alarms the antislaver y movement and intensifies the growing division of opinion within the United State. The newly-formed Republican Party, which opposes the expansion of slavery, vigorously criticizes the decision and the court.
* 1857 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.
* 1858 Dred Scott dies of tuberculosis and is buried in St. Louis. He was buried in Wesleyan Cemetary 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 cemetary closed and the bodies were dis-interred and re-buried at other sites. Dred Scott's body was moved to an unmarked grave in Section 1, Lot No. 177, Calvary Cemetary, in north St. Louis County. In 1957 a marker was placed on Dred Scott's grave which reads:


* 1860 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.

For more information, see:

* The Dred Scott Decision at the Jefferson Expansion Memorial website.
* The Old Courthouse at the Jefferson Expansion Memorial
* The Field Family history Roswell Martin Field served as the attorney for the slaves Dred and Harriet Scott and their daughters, Eliza and Lizzy, when they brought action in federal court for their freedom.
* The St. Louis Circuit Court Case Files at the Missouri State Archives
* Background of slave freedom suits in Missouri
* St Louis Court Records Project
* Law Professor Shines Light on 'Mrs. Dred Scott'
* Judgment in the U.S. Supreme Court Case Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, March 6, 1857
* Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856) (USSC+) U.S. Supreme Court Collection at the Legal Information Institute 

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