What was the Dred Scott Decision?
Dred Scott was born in Virginia at the turn of the 19th century. We know he was a slave owned by Peter Blow, but most details of his early life are patchy. It is unclear if Dred was born to parents owned by Blow or if he was purchased as a young child. Blow first tried to build a fortune as a cotton farmer before moving to Tennessee and opening an inn. Shortly after another move to Missouri, Dred Scott was sold to John Emerson, an army surgeon in 1831. Scott joined his new master at Fort Armstrong in Illinois, a fort on the western frontier.
Illinois was technically a free state but officers were allowed to bring their “servants” with them as Fort Armstrong was in a remote location where labor was difficult to find. Emerson and Scott moved to Fort Snelling, in the Territory of Wisconsin in 1836. Again, this was an area that was allegedly free but one where the army overlooked the so-called servants kept by officers. It was here that Dred Scott met his future wife Harriet.
Slave marriages tended to be pretty uncommon, but the two were indeed married later that year. Their wedding was officiated by Harriet’s owner Major Lawrence Taliaferro who then sold Harriet to Emerson. While it is likely Harriet and Scott had a more tolerable day-to-day existence than many plantation slaves, they were certainly not free. It was common for slave families to be separated due to one of the family members being sold. Children tended to fetch the highest prices so a family lived with the fear of knowing they could be broken up at any time.
The couple’s first child, Eliza, was born in 1838. By then, the family had relocated to St. Louis, where they were hired out by their master. When Dr. Emerson died in 1843, Dred and his family were bequeathed to Emerson’s widow, Irene.
Dred and Harriet’s second child, Lizzie, was born in 1846. Concerned for the future of the family, Dred asked Irene for the chance to buy their freedom. The appeal was rejected and the family was hired out to work for a St. Louis couple. Dred and Harriet filed petitions for freedom to the Missouri District Court with the support of the children of Peter Blow, Dred’s old master.
The first trial was thrown out on a technicality in June 1847 but a retrial ruled in the Scotts’ favor in January 1850. However, Irene Emerson was determined to press her claim and brought her case to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Though slavery had always been a contentious issue in the United States, resentment over slavery reached its height in the 1850s, at the time of the Scott case. The Great Compromise of 1850 aimed to ease tensions between free and slave states over the gains of the Mexican-American war. Even so, attitudes over slavery were hardening and threatening the very existence of the union. The decision taken by the Missouri Supreme Court in the Scott case reflected this.
The Court considered the case a matter of property rights. Judge William Scott argued that Missouri was surrounded by free territory, so it was unreasonable to declare a slave stepping beyond those lines to be free. By that point, ownership of the Scotts had transferred to John Sanford, Irene’s brother, and the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
The Scotts’ lawyer wrote to Montgomery Blair seeking to bring the case before the United States Supreme Court. Blair was a District of Columbia lawyer who was familiar with the Southern way of thinking. Sanford was represented by the former Attorney General and Maryland senator, Reverdy Johnson and Missouri senator Henry Geyer. As more prominent legal minds became attached to the case, the case fully transitioned from a routine local matter to a national case that had important future implications. Because of a misspelling by a clerk, the case is recorded and now forever known as Scott v. Sandford.
Arguments ended on December 18, 1856, and it was clear that the Supreme Court, with a Southern majority, were going to rule in favor of John Sanford. Initially, the judgement was to be fairly modest. Justice Samuel Nelson was to avoid any ruling on the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise and the right of African Americans to sue in federal court. However, this decision was reversed and Chief Justice Roger Taney, almost 80 years old, took on the task which would earn him eternal infamy.
Taney had previously been known and respected as a fair-minded and pragmatic judge. As a young man he had released his slaves and was generally considered a moderate by the standards of the time. However, none of these qualities were apparent in his 55-page ruling which declared the Scotts were, had always been, and always would be slaves. The main points of Taney’s ruling were:
1. Black Americans, free or not, were not citizens of the United States and were not subject to the same legal rights.
2. Congress could not restrict slavery in new states.
3. The 1820 Missouri Compromise was ruled unconstitutional.
The ruling came as a shock due to its strong, critical language and the openly partisan nature of the decision. The ruling prompted two objectors. The conflicting opinion of Justice Benjamin Curtis was a lengthy rebuttal which pointed out the flaws and inconsistencies of Taney’s argument. Sickened by what he saw as the Court’s abandonment of its responsibility, Curtis resigned soon afterwards.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave and prominent voice against slavery, noted that Taney was a powerful individual but, “he cannot change the essential nature of things – making evil good, and good, evil.”
At the Illinois Republican State Convention, Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “house divided” speech. Lincoln denounced the Dredd Scott ruling and argued that there could be no compromise on the issue of slavery. Either it would be the law of the land or eradicated completely. As he put it, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The Scotts did eventually gain their freedom, though not through the Supreme Court. In 1857, they were purchased and then freed by Taylor Blow. The Scott family were offered a fortune to tour the north but chose to live a quiet life in St. Louis. Dred Scott’s life as a free man proved to be a brief one; he died around a year later of tuberculosis. A short and otherwise unremarkable man had left behind a giant historical legacy.
OK, now that we’ve covered everything, let’s look at a couple of review questions!
1. What was the legal basis of Dred Scott’s claim for freedom?
A. Residence in a free state
B. Slavery was immoral
C. The death of his master
D. The length of his service
The correct answer is A. Scott’s claim was that he no longer resided in a slave state, so that meant he was a free man.
2. Which of the following points was NOT a part of Taney’s ruling?
A. Black Americans were not citizens
B. The Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional
C. Congress could not restrict slavery
D. A repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act
The correct answer is D. The Fugitive Slave Act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!