28 Days Of Black History Day #21 Dred Scott
Dred Scott (1795 – September 17, 1858), was a slave in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as “the Dred Scott Decision.” The case was based on the fact that although he and his wife Harriet Scott were slaves, they had lived with his master Dr. John Emerson in states and territories where slavery was illegal according to both state laws and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, including Illinois and Minnesota (which was then part of the Wisconsin Territory). The United States Supreme Court decided 7–2 against Scott, finding that neither he nor any other person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States, and therefore Scott could not bring suit in federal court under diversity of citizenship rules. Moreover, Scott’s temporary residence outside Missouri did not bring about his emancipation under the Missouri Compromise, which the court ruled unconstitutional as it would improperly deprive Scott’s owner of his legal property. While Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had hoped to settle issues related to slavery and Congressional authority by this decision, it aroused public outrage and deepened sectional tensions between the northern and southern U.S. states. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the post-Civil War Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments nullified the decision.
The case raised the issue of the status of slaves who had been held captive while residing in a free state. Such states and territories held that a slaveholder forfeited his rights to property by illegally holding a slave captive in a state that prohibited the institution and where there was no law to support his controlling the slave. Congress had never before addressed whether slaves were free if they set foot upon free soil. The ruling overturned the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional, since it ruled that as slavery was protected in the Constitution, Congress could not regulate it in the federal Territories and deprive a slave owner of his property without due process. This conclusion enraged the abolitionist Republicans and further exacerbated sectional sentiments that led to the American Civil War. Newspapers at this time covered the case very well, showing people’s interest in the topic. Depending on the newspaper (southern or abolitionist) the reporters would either show approval or disapproval towards the decision to deny Scott his freedom.
Scott often traveled with his master Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, who was regularly transferred under Army command. Scott’s stay with his master in Illinois, a free state, gave him the legal leverage to make a claim for freedom, as did his extended stay at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory (now Minnesota), where slavery was also prohibited. Scott did not file a petition for freedom while living in the free lands—perhaps because he was unaware of his rights at the time, or because he was afraid of the possible repercussions. After two years, the army transferred Emerson to territory where slavery was legal: first to St. Louis, Missouri, then to Louisiana. After getting married in Louisiana, Emerson commanded the Scotts to return to him. They could have refused the order by staying in the free territory of Wisconsin (now Minnesota), or by going to the free state of Illinois, but instead they went down the Mississippi River to Louisiana; a voyage of more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km). Emerson died in 1843; his widow directed Scott to work for another officer. At this change Scott sought freedom for his family and himself. He offered US$300, about $8,000 in current value, to Emerson’s widow, Irene, but she refused to release him. Scott then went to the St. Louis Circuit Court to obtain his freedom.
In the mid-1790s, Dred Scott was born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia, as property to the Peter Blow family. From what experts can conclude, Scott was originally named Sam and had an older brother named Dred. However, when the brother died as a young man, Scott chose to take his brother’s name instead. The Blow family settled near Huntsville, Alabama, where they unsuccessfully attempted farming.
In 1830 the Blow family took Scott with them when they relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. They sold him to John Emerson, a doctor serving in the United States Army.
Having failed to purchase his freedom, in 1846 Scott filed legal suit in St Louis Circuit Court through the help of a local lawyer. Historical details about why Scott sought recourse in the court system are unclear. The Scott v. Emerson case was tried in 1847 in the federal-state courthouse in St. Louis. The judgment went against Scott, but having found evidence of hearsay, the judge called for a retrial.
In 1850, a Missouri jury concluded that Scott and his wife should be granted freedom since they had been illegally held as slaves during their extended residence in the free jurisdictions of Illinois and Wisconsin. Irene Emerson appealed. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the lower court ruling, saying, “Times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made.” They ruled that the precedent of “once free always free” was no longer the case, overturning 28 years of legal precedent. They told the Scotts they should have sued for freedom in Wisconsin. Justice Hamilton R. Gamble, a future governor of the state, sharply disagreed with the majority decision and wrote a dissenting opinion. The Scotts were returned to their master’s wife.
Under Missouri law at the time, after Dr. Emerson had died, powers of the Emerson estate were transferred to his wife’s brother, John F. A. Sanford. Because Sanford was a citizen of New York, Scott’s lawyers “claimed the case should now be brought before the Federal courts, on the grounds of diverse citizenship.” With the assistance of new lawyers (including Montgomery Blair), the Scotts filed suit in the federal court.
After losing again in federal district court, they appealed to the United States Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford. (The name is spelled “Sandford” in the court decision due to a clerical error.)
On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion. Taney ruled that:
Any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States, according to the Constitution.
The Ordinance of 1787 could not confer either freedom or citizenship within the Northwest Territory to non-white individuals.
The provisions of the Act of 1820, known as the Missouri Compromise, were voided as a legislative act, since the act exceeded the powers of Congress, insofar as it attempted to exclude slavery and impart freedom and citizenship to non-white persons in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase.
The Court had ruled that African Americans had no claim to freedom or citizenship. Since they were not citizens, they did not possess the legal standing to bring suit in a federal court. As slaves were private property, Congress did not have the power to regulate slavery in the territories and could not revoke a slave owner’s rights based on where he lived. This decision nullified the essence of the Missouri Compromise, which divided territories into jurisdictions either free or slave. Speaking for the majority, Taney ruled that because Scott was simply considered the private property of his owners, that he was subject to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting the taking of property from its owner “without due process”.
The Scott decision increased tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in both North and South, further pushing the country towards the brink of civil war. Ultimately, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution settled the issue of Black citizenship via Section 1 of that Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside…”
Following the ruling, Scott and his family were returned to Emerson’s widow. In the meantime, her brother John Sanford had been committed to an insane asylum.
In 1850, Irene Sanford Emerson had remarried. Her new husband, Calvin C. Chaffee, was an abolitionist, who shortly after their marriage was elected to the U.S. Congress. Chaffee was apparently unaware that his wife owned the most prominent slave in the United States until one month before the Supreme Court decision. By then it was too late for him to intervene. Chaffee was harshly criticized for having been married to a slaveholder. He persuaded Irene to return Scott to the Blow family, his original owners. By this time, the Blow family had relocated to Missouri and become opponents of slavery. Henry Taylor Blow manumitted the four Scotts on May 26, 1857, less than three months after the Supreme Court ruling.