The Dred Scott case, an American turning point

Date: 
Fri, 1857-03-06

*On this date in 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott Case. It is believed by many to have been a key cause of the American Civil War, and of the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, leading to the end of slavery and the beginning of civil rights for freed African slaves.

The 1800s were consumed with sectional strife, primarily about race. This brought about the Dred Scott decision and irreversible impetus towards civil war. No other case in judicial American history has achieved as much notoriety as has Dred Scott. The case continues to symbolize the marginal status in which African-Americans often have been held in the social and political order of the United States. Dred Scott was the slave of a U. S. Army surgeon, John Emerson of Missouri, a state that permitted slavery. In 1834, Scott traveled with Emerson to live in Illinois, where slavery was prohibited. They later lived in the Wisconsin territory.

In 1836 Emerson and Scott moved to Fort Snelling, an army post in what is now Minnesota, in both of the later areas slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise. At Fort Snelling, Scott married Harriet Robinson, who was also a slave. In 1837 Emerson left Fort Snelling for Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Scott and his wife stayed behind in Fort Snelling, but later joined Emerson in 1838. The Scotts eventually returned to St. Louis with Emerson in 1840. In 1846, after Emerson died, Scott sued Emerson’s widow to gain freedom for himself, his wife Harriet, and their two children. Scott argued that living at Fort Snelling had made him, and his family, free, and that once free they remained free, even after returning to Missouri. In January of 1850, a jury of 12 White men on the St. Louis Circuit Court concluded that Scott’s two years of residence in a free state and a free territory made him free. However, in 1852 the Missouri Supreme Court reversed this decision, claiming that due to Northern hostility toward slavery, Missouri would no longer recognize federal or state laws that might have emancipated Scott.

In 1854 Scott turned to the federal courts and renewed his quest for freedom in the U. S. Circuit Court in Missouri. Scott’s owner at this time was Emerson’s brother-in-law, John F. A. Sanford, who argued that Blacks could never be citizens of the United States and therefore could never sue in federal court. Federal Judge Robert Wells ruled that if Scott was free he was entitled to sue in federal court as a citizen. However, after a trial Wells decided Scott was still a slave. Scott then appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. The court heard his case, formally known as Scott v. Sandford, in the spring of 1856 but did not decide it that year. Instead, the court ordered new arguments, to be conducted in December 1856, after the presidential election. Montgomery Blair, who would later serve as postmaster general in the Cabinet of President Abraham Lincoln, and George T. Curtis, brother of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis, represented Scott for free. U. S. Senator Henry S. Geyer of Missouri, and Reverdy Johnson, a Maryland politician and close friend of Chief Justice Taney, represented Scott’s owner.

In March 1857, the court ruled in a 7 to 2 decision that Scott was still a slave and therefore not entitled to sue in court. For the first time in history, each of the nine justices on the court wrote an opinion in the same case, explaining their various positions on the court’s decision. Chief Justice Taney’s 54-page majority opinion of the court had wide-ranging effects. In it he argued that free Blacks—even those who could vote in the states where they lived—could never be U. S. citizens. At the time some or all adult Black males could vote in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New York, and Blacks had held public office in Ohio and Massachusetts. Nevertheless, Taney declared that even if a Black was a citizen of a state "It does not by any means follow... that he must be a citizen of the United States." Taney based this unprecedented legal argument entirely on race.

Although he knew that some Blacks had voted at the time of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States in 1787, Taney nevertheless argued that Blacks "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution... On the contrary, they were at that time (1787) considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and... had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and Government might chose to grant them." In words that shocked much of the North, Taney declared Blacks were "so far inferior, that they had no rights, which the White man, was bound to respect.” Taney concluded that Blacks could never be citizens of the United States, even if they were born in the country and considered to be citizens of the states in which they lived.

On May 26, 1857, shortly after Taney’s decision, Scott gained his freedom when the sons of his first owner, Peter Blow, purchased and freed Scott and his family. Scott remained a free man until his death a few months later, on February 17, 1858. His case, however, remained an essential issue in American politics and law until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Reference:
Historic U.S. Cases 1690-1993:
An Encyclopedia New York
Copyright 1992 Garland Publishing, New York
ISBN 0-8240-4430-4

The Anti-Slavery Society

Person / name: 

Scott, Dred