Dred Scott (1795 – September 17, 1858) was born in Virginia as a slave to the Peter Blow family. He was not taught to read or write but his determination to win his freedom was fierce. Scott sued unsuccessfully for his freedom in the famous Dred Scott v. Sandford case.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision on March 6, 1857, was historic as it was the first instance in which the Supreme Court invalidated a major piece of federal legislation. The decision declared that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the federal territories and that slaves were not citizens. The decision also played a major role in igniting the fires of civil war.
Dred Scott decision
Scott filed suit to obtain his freedom in 1846, and went to trial in 1847, in a state courthouse in St. Louis, Missouri. The Blow family financed his legal pursuits. Scott lost the first trial, but the presiding judge granted a second trial because hearsay evidence had been introduced. Three years later, in 1850, a jury decided the Scotts should be freed under the Missouri doctrine of "once free, always free." The widow, Irene Sandford 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." The Scotts were returned to their masters as property once more.
With the aid of new lawyers, including Montgomery Blair, the Scotts sued again in the St. Louis Federal Court. They lost and appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion. It consisted of the following points:
- The highest court in the United States held that everyone descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States, according to the U.S. Constitution.
- The Ordinance of 1787 could not confer freedom or citizenship within the Northwest Territory to Black people who are not citizens recognized by the Constitution.
- The provisions of the Act of 1820, known as the Missouri Compromise, were voided as a legislative act because it exceeded the powers of Congress in so far as it attempted to exclude slavery and impart freedom and citizenship to Black people in the northern part of the Louisiana cession.
In effect, the Taney court ruled that slaves had no claim to freedom, slaves were property and not citizens, slaves could not bring suit against anyone in federal court, and because slaves were private property, the federal government could not revoke a white slave owner's right to own a slave based on where they lived, thus nullifying the essence of the Missouri Compromise. Chief Justice Taney, speaking for the majority, also ruled that Scott was a slave, an object of private property, and therefore subject to the Fifth Amendment prohibition against taking property from its owner "without due process."
Much to his disgrace, Taney, referred to the words in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal," declaring that this was not intended for slaves of African descent.
This case was one of the major factors leading to the American Civil War. The ruling arguably violated the Missouri Compromise because, based on the court's logic, a white slave owner could purchase slaves in a slave state and then bring his slaves to a state where slavery is illegal without losing rights to the slaves. At that time there were nearly 4 million slaves in America. The court's ruling affected the status of every enslaved and free African-American in the United States. The ruling served to turn back the clock concerning the rights of African-Americans, ignoring the fact that black men in five of the original States had been full voting citizens dating back to the Declaration of Independence (United States) in 1776. Southern support of slavery and Northern opposition to it came to a boil once the Supreme Court ruled on the case
Life of Dred Scott
Dred Scott was born in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1795, as property of the Peter Blow family. Dred Scott and the Blow family moved in 1830 to St. Louis, Missouri, where, because of financial problems, the Blow family sold Scott to Dr. John Emerson, a doctor for the United States Army. Emerson traveled extensively in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territories, where the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery. Scott accompanied Dr. Emerson for some 12 years. His extended stay with his master in Illinois, a free state, gave him the legal standing to make a claim for freedom, as did his extended stay at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was also prohibited.
Scott married Harriett Robinson, who was the slave of Major Lawrence Taliaferro, the U.S. Indian Agent for the Upper Mississippi River who spent much of his federal career at Fort Snelling, and other outposts in what was then the Northwest Territories and the Louisiana Purchase. Harriett Robinson may have been born in Virginia, but likely spent a good deal of her early life in Pennsylvania. She arrived at Fort Snelling with Taliaferro between the mid-1820s and 1835. She married Dred Scott when she was 17 years old (he was about 40) in a ceremony presided over by Taliaferro.
The army eventually transferred Emerson to the South; first to St. Louis, Missouri, then to Louisiana. A little over a year after leaving St. Louis, a recently married Emerson summoned his slave couple. Instead of staying in the free territory of Wisconsin, or going to the free state of Illinois, the two traveled more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km), apparently unaccompanied, down the Mississippi River to meet their master.
Scott never made his claim for freedom while living in the free lands; perhaps because he was unaware of his rights at the time, or perhaps because he was content with Emerson. Only after Emerson's death in 1843, after Emerson's widow hired Scott out to an army captain, did Scott seek freedom for himself and his wife. First he offered to buy his freedom from Mrs. Emerson; then living in St. Louis for $300. The offer was refused. Scott then sought freedom through the courts.
Scott's marriage to Harriet made him the stepfather of her two daughters. As a slave family, slaves were forced to accompany their "Masters" and were forced to relinquish the rights of their own children, thereby allowing them to be sold at the very whim of the owner. His marriage to a much younger woman who had daughters is said to have played a role in his determination to win freedom.
Emerson met and married Irene Sandford in Louisiana. The Scotts and the Emersons returned to Missouri in 1842. After John Emerson died, John F.A. Sandford, brother of the widow Irene Sandford Emerson, became executor of the Emerson estate.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Scott was returned as property to the widow Emerson. In 1857, she remarried. Because her second husband opposed slavery, Emerson returned Dred Scott and his family to his original owners, the Blow family, who granted him freedom less than a year and a half before he died from tuberculosis in September 1858.
Dred Scott is interred in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. Harriet was thought to be buried near her husband, but it was later learned that she was buried somewhere in Greenwood Cemetery, in Hillsdale, Missouri.
In 1997, Dred and Harriet Scott were inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
- University of Iowa, Law Professor Shines Light on Mrs. Dred Scott. Retrieved September 4, 2007.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. Dred Scott Decision. Retrieved August 16, 2020.
- The History Place. Abraham Lincoln. Retrieved August 16, 2020.
- PBS. Dred Scott Decision:Supreme Court. Retrieved August 16, 2020.
All links retrieved October 10, 2017.
- Biography of Dred Scott by Christyn Elley, Missouri State Archives.
- Full text of the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision from Findlaw.
- Dred Scott v. Sandford and related resources at the Library of Congress.
- Mr. Lincoln and Freedom: Dred Scott.
- Account of ruling by U.S. Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford as it appeared in The New York Times March 6, 1857.
- St. Louis Walk of Fame.
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