The Dred Scott Decision

March 6, 1857

Dred Scott was a black man born into slavery somewhere in Virginia. Not much is know about his early life. His owner, Peter Blow, moved to Alabama in 1818, taking his six slaves along to work a farm near Huntsville. In 1830, Blow gave up farming and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he sold Scott to U.S. Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson. After purchasing Scott, Emerson took him to Fort Armstrong in Illinois. A free state, Illinois had been free as a territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and had prohibited slavery in its constitution in 1819 when it was admitted as a state. I don’t know why they put that in there, that ain’t never stopped nobody.

Anywho, in 1836, Emerson moved with Scott from Illinois to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin territory in what has become the state of Minnesota. Slavery in the Wisconsin Territory was prohibited by the United States Congress under the Missouri Compromise. The Missouri Compromise was the legislation that provided for the admission of Maine to the United States as a free state along with Missouri as a slave state, thus maintaining the balance of power between North and South in the United States Senate.  During his stay at Fort Snelling, Scott married Harriet Robinson in a civil ceremony by Harriet’s owner, Major Lawrence Taliaferro, a justice of the peace who was also an Indian agent. The ceremony would have been unnecessary had Dred Scott been a slave, as slave marriages had no recognition in the law.

Now just because you have Justice of the Peace and a ceremony, back in those days you was still a slave and yes, some of you have jokes, but I would leave it alone if I was you. Anyway, in 1837, the army ordered Emerson to Jefferson Barracks Military Post, south of St. Louis, Missouri. Emerson left Scott and his wife at Fort Snelling, where he leased their services out for profit. By hiring Scott out in a free state, Emerson was effectively bringing the institution of slavery into a free state, which was a direct violation of the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Wisconsin Enabling Act. Before the end of the year, the army reassigned Emerson to Fort Jesup in Louisiana, where Emerson married Eliza Irene Sanford in February, 1838. Emerson sent for Scott and Harriet, who proceeded to Louisiana to serve their master and his wife. While en route to Louisiana, Scott’s daughter Eliza was born on a steamboat underway on the Mississippi River between Illinois and what would become Iowa. Because Eliza was born in free territory, she was technically born as a free person under both federal and state laws. 

Upon entering Louisiana, the Scotts could have sued for their freedom, but did not. It has been suggested that in all likelihood, the Scotts would have been granted their freedom by a Louisiana court, as it had respected laws of free states that slaveholders forfeited their right to slaves if they brought them in for extended periods. This had been the holding in Louisiana state courts for more than 20 years… yeah I bet. It was a technicality that put our ass in chains for 400 years. We was black. Toward the end of 1838, the army reassigned Emerson to Fort Snelling. By 1840, Emerson’s wife Irene returned to St. Louis with their slaves, while Dr. Emerson served in the Seminole War. While in St. Louis, she hired them out. In 1842, Emerson left the army. After he died in the Iowa Territory in 1843, his widow Irene inherited his estate, including the Scotts. For three years after John Emerson’s death, she continued to lease out the Scotts as hired slaves. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his and his family’s freedom, but Irene Emerson refused, prompting Scott to resort to legal recourse. I’m not sure what he was thinking at this time, because Missouri was a slave state. I would do a marriage joke here, but I don’t want to tempt nobody.

Scott based his legal argument on precedents such as Somersett v. StewartWinny v. Whitesides, and Rachel v. Walker, claiming his presence and residence in free territories required his emancipation. Scott’s lawyers argued the same for Scott’s wife, and further claimed that Eliza Scott’s birth on a steamboat between a free state and a free territory had made her free upon birth. Scott lost his case due to a technicality.. . I’m shocked!! Scott had not proven that he was actually enslaved by Irene Emerson, but that’s not why he lost the case. At the trial, grocer Samuel Russell had testified that he was leasing Scott from Irene Emerson, but on cross-examination he admitted that the leasing arrangements had actually been made by his wife Adeline. Thus, Russell’s testimony was ruled hearsay and the jury returned a verdict for Emerson. Russell lied, but that still doesn’t account for the basic tenant of the lawsuit. “We are free because we were taken to a free state and stayed for a long time.” Must be one of those technicalities.

That was his first case, but it was the second case, the one that went all the way to the Supreme Court, that put the whip back in the slave. In December 1847, Judge Hamilton granted Scott a new trial. Emerson appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Missouri, which affirmed the trial court’s order in 1848. Due to a major fire, a cholera epidemic, and two continuances, the new trial did not begin until January 1850. While the case awaited trial, Scott and his family were placed in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff, who continued to lease out the services of Scott and his family. The proceeds were placed in escrow, to be paid to Scott’s owner or himself upon resolution of the case. Those folks had no conscious, not now a bit. You work those fields until we resolve this and we gonna have to charge you room and board if you win.

The hearsay problem was surmounted by a deposition from Adeline Russell, stating that she had leased the Scotts from Emerson. The jury found in favor of Scott and his family. Unwilling to accept the loss of four slaves and a substantial escrow account, Emerson appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, although by that point she had moved to Massachusetts and transferred ownership of Scott to her brother, John F. A. Sanford. In November 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that the Scotts were still legally slaves and that they should have sued for freedom while living in a free state. What I tell you?

In 1853, Dred Scott again sued his current owner, John Sanford, but now in federal court.  You might be wondering where did Scott get the money to pay all these lawyers? Some expenses were paid by abolitionist and some of the work was done pro bono. However at the time of the Supreme court case, of the three lawyers representing him, two left and the third one died. The case was now undertaken pro bono by Roswell Field, whose office employed Dred Scott as a janitor. Field also discussed the case with LaBeaume, who had taken over the lease on the Scotts in 1851. Following the Missouri Supreme Court decision, Judge Hamilton turned down a request by Emerson’s lawyers to release the rent payments from escrow and to deliver the slaves into their owner’s custody.

The case was recorded as Dred Scott v. Sandford and entered history with that title. When the case was filed, the two sides agreed on a statement of facts that claimed Scott had been sold by Dr. Emerson to John Sanford. However, this was a legal fiction. Dr. Emerson had died in 1843, and Dred Scott had filed his 1847 suit against Irene Emerson. There is no record of Dred Scott’s transfer to Sanford, or of his transfer back to Irene Chaffee. John Sanford died shortly before Scott’s manumission, but Scott is not listed in the probate records of Sanford’s estate. Nor was Sanford acting as Dr. Emerson’s executor, as he was never appointed by a probate court, and the Emerson estate had already been settled by the time the federal case was filed. Because of the murky circumstances surrounding ownership, it has been suggested that the parties to Dred Scott v. Sandford contrived to create a case. Mrs. Emerson’s remarriage to an abolitionist Congressman seemed suspicious to contemporaries, and Sanford seemed to be a front who allowed himself to be sued despite not actually being Scott’s owner.

The Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott in a 7–2 decision that fills over 200 pages in the United States Reports. The decision contains opinions from eight different justices, but the opinion of the Court—the “majority opinion”—is the opinion that has always been the focus of the controversy.
Historians discovered that after the Supreme Court had heard arguments in the case but before it had issued a ruling, President-elect James Buchanan wrote to his friend, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Catron, asking whether the case would be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court before his inauguration in March 1857. Republicans fueled speculation as to Buchanan’s influence by publicizing that Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had secretly informed Buchanan of the decision before Buchanan declared, in his inaugural address, that the slavery question would “be speedily and finally settled” by the Supreme Court.

Dred Scott lost. Seven justices formed the majority and joined an opinion written by Chief Justice Roger Taney.

” The question is simply this: 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 of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen?”

In answer, the Court ruled that they could not.

“We think […] that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [of the Constitution’s framing] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.”

After concluding that the Court had no jurisdiction over Dred Scott’s case because he was not a citizen, Taney did not conclude the matter before the Court, as per usual procedure, but rather continued further and struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional. Taney wrote that the Compromise’s legal provisions would free slaves who were living north of the 36°N latitude line in the western territories. However, in the Court’s judgment, this would constitute the government depriving slave owners of their property—since slaves were legally the property of their owners—without due process of law, which is forbidden under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It also reasoned that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights implicitly precluded any possibility of constitutional rights for black African slaves and their descendants. That meant that any free slave in the Missouri territories could legally be claimed by slave owners if they could provide proof.

Although Scott had lost the case, he did attain freedom. The former wife of Dr Emerson transferred ownership to one of the lawyers who had previously defended Scott in the lower courts. He was then freed along with his family. The emancipation of Dred Scott and his family was national news and was celebrated in northern cities. Scott worked as a porter in a hotel in St. Louis, where he was a minor celebrity. His wife took in laundry.
Dred Scott died of tuberculosis only 18 months after attaining freedom, on November 7, 1858. Harriet died on June 17, 1876.

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