Dred Scott Case


Dred Scott
Dred Scott

Dred Scott v. Sandford was a watershed 1857 ruling by the US Supreme Court that inflamed racial tensions and moved the United States closer to the brink of the American Civil War. Dred Scott sued to obtain his and his family's freedom, claiming that because they had resided in a free territory, legal precedent required that they be emancipated. However, the Court declared that Scott and all African Americans who were brought to the US from Africa as slaves could not be United States citizens. Despite the Court's conclusion that it lacked the jurisdiction to rule in the matter because Scott lacked citizenship with which to bring suit, it went on to "comment" on various aspects of the case in one of the American legal system's first occurrences of obiter dictum.

Dred Scott Case | Historical Background | Personal History of Scott | Dred Scott v. Sandford | Aftermath

Historical Background



In 1820, the Missouri Compromise was enacted maintain the even ratio of free to slave states and calm flaring tensions between the two. However, the Mexican American War jeopardized this balance because in victory, the United States obtained huge tracts of formerly Mexican land. To diffuse the ensuing conflict over the slavery status of the new land, another attempt at compromise was made: the Compromise of 1850. But the fragile balance did not last, for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the states of Kansas and Nebraska and allowed them to be populated by pro-slavery settlers, disrupting the balance of free and slave state power in the United States. In the time leading up to the Dred Scott trial, tension between the free and slave states was greater than ever.

Personal History of Scott



Dred Scott was born as a slave in 1795 in Southampton County, Virginia. He worked under Peter Blow and his wife Elizabeth Blow. In 1818, Scott moved along with the Blow family to a cotton plantation in Alabama, and soon after, the family moved again to St. Louis, Missouri, where both Peter and Elizabeth Blow died. Slightly before the death of Scott’s owners, he was sold to a military surgeon named John Emerson and because Emerson had military duties, Scott moved across the country with his master, wherever Emerson was needed. With Emerson, Scott traveled to the free territory of Fort Armstrong, Illinois. Later, Scott moved further up the Mississippi River to Fort Snelling, where he met his wife Harriet Robinson. Dred Scott and his wife spent their time with Dr. Emerson until his sudden death in 1843. Although the two slaves were not mentioned in Dr. Emerson’s will, his wife Irene Emerson deemed them her property, hired them out and collected their wages. Outraged, Scott sued for freedom.

Dred Scott v. Sandford


State Case


Scott sued Emerson in 1846 in Missouri state court upon the grounds that the fact that he had lived in free territories like Illinois and Wisconsin, places in which both state and federal law prohibited slavery; The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 federally prohibited slavery in both states, respectively, and each had state laws or clauses in their constitutions declaring slavery illegal in the state. However, this first attempt was halted when the suit was dismissed because Scott failed to bring a witness testifying of his slave status.

But in 1847, another trial was ordered by a Missouri judge and consequently, Scott v. Emerson was brought before a jury in early 1850. The jury vindicated Scott, finding him and his family to be rightfully free. Irene Emerson appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Missouri; many believe that she was unwilling to lose four slaves in good condition, as well as wages which they earned during the trial which were held in an escrow account during the trial’s course. However, Emerson moved to Massachusetts soon after, and it was then that John Sanford, Emerson’s brother, took over the case on behalf of Emerson. The Missouri Supreme Court, upon appeal, overturned the lower court’s decision and much legal precedent which up to that point had supported the idea that if a slave became free once, he or she would always be free. The court dramatically concluded that allowing the Scotts’ freedom would further an anti-slavery trend, whose “inevitable consequences must be the overthrow and destruction of our government.”

Federal Case


In 1853, Scott brought another suit against Sanford, but this time in federal court (Sanford was a resident of New York and the Scotts resided in Missouri, allowing for a federal court to hear the inter-state case). The jury in the trial sided with the Missouri Supreme Court, but Scott appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, and on March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (a clerical error led to a misspelling of Sanford’s name in the official record). By a vote of 7-2, the Court ruled that Scott had no grounds upon which to sue because his African-American background and slave status excluded him from ever being a US citizen or having the rights of a US citizen.

In its commentary, legally known as obiter dictum and a practice many legal experts disparage, the Court presented several reasons upon which its decision was based. For one, Chief Justice Roger Taney said, the Constitution viewed blacks as “altogether unfit to associate with the white race,” and thus could not afford the same rights to blacks as whites. The Court also decided that a pro-Scott decision could lead to a cascade of rights and privileges to blacks which would destroy the then-normal social order.

The decision had far-reaching legal effects. By intervening in the matter of the rights of slaves, the Court invalidated the ability of Congress to decide whether a territory would be “free” or “slave,” and so used judicial review to overturn a law, the Missouri Compromise, for only the second time in the history of the United States. In addition, the Court ruled that freeing slaves who had a master but lived in “free” territory would be akin to the government taking the slaveowner’s property, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

Aftermath



Two months after the court ruling, Scott and his family were emancipated by abolitionist Calvin C. Chaffee, late husband of Irene Emerson, because Chaffee was criticized harshly for being a slave owner. For the next year and a half, Scott and his family lived free in Missouri where he worked as a porter, but in 1858, Scott died of tuberculosis. The Dred Scott decision took the power to regulate slaves in free states from Congress and claimed that because slaves were personal property and not citizens of the United States, court rules and decisions for Americans did not apply to them. To the Northerners that lived in the free states, this was a huge step towards slavery. Because, as a result of the decision, slaves were officially treated as personal property, the Western states could very well have become slave states if slaveowners were to migrate there. This would not only upset the tilting balance between slave and free states, but also allow slavery into any states including once-free states. The gravity of this situation caused many tolerant free state residents to take a firm stance against slavery and expanded the gap between the North and the South. The increased divide brought the nation another step closer to the Civil War.


References


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dred_Scott
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dred_Scott_v._Sandford
  3. http://www.historyplace.com/lincoln/dred.htm
  4. http://library.wustl.edu/vlib/dredscott/

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Scott sued Emerson in 1846 in Missouri state court upon the grounds that the fact that he had lived in free territories like Illinois and Wisconsin, places in which both state and federal law prohibited slavery; The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 federally prohibited slavery in both states, respectively, and each had state laws or clauses in their constitutions declaring slavery illegal in the state. However, this first attempt was halted when the suit was dismissed because Scott failed to bring a witness testifying of his slave status.
But in 1847, another trial was ordered by a Missouri judge and consequently, Scott v. Emerson was brought before a jury in early 1850. The jury vindicated Scott, finding him and his family to be rightfully free. Irene Emerson appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Missouri; many believe that she was unwilling to lose four slaves in good condition, as well as wages which they earned during the trial which were held in an escrow account during the trial’s course. However, Emerson moved to Massachusetts soon after, and it was then that John Sanford, Emerson’s brother, took over the case on behalf of Emerson. The Missouri Supreme Court, upon appeal, overturned the lower court’s decision and much legal precedent which up to that point had supported the idea that if a slave became free once, he or she would always be free. The court dramatically concluded that allowing the Scotts’ freedom would further an anti-slavery trend, whose “inevitable consequences must be the overthrow and destruction of our government.”
In 1853, Scott brought another suit against Sanford, but this time in federal court (Sanford was a resident of New York and the Scotts resided in Missouri, allowing for a federal court to hear the inter-state case). The jury in the trial sided with the Missouri Supreme Court, but Scott appealed the case to the US Supreme Court, and on March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (a clerical error led to a misspelling of Sanford’s name in the official record).
By a vote of 7-2, the Court ruled that Scott had no grounds upon which to sue because his African-American background and slave status excluded him from ever being a US citizen or having the rights of a US citizen.
In its commentary, legally known as obiter dictum and a practice many legal experts disparage, the Court presented several reasons upon which its decision was based. For one, Chief Justice Roger Taney said, the Constitution viewed blacks as “altogether unfit to associate with the white race,” and thus could not afford the same rights to blacks as whites. The Court also decided that a pro-Scott decision could lead to a cascade of rights and privileges to blacks which would destroy the then-normal social order.
The decision also had far-reaching legal effects. By intervening in the matter of the rights of slaves, the Court invalidated the ability of Congress to decide whether a territory would be “free” or “slave,” and so used judicial review to overturn a law, the Missouri Compromise, for only the second time in the history of the United States. In addition, the Court ruled that freeing slaves who had a master but lived in “free” territory would be akin to the government taking the slaveowner’s property, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.