The Dred Scott Case
One of the most important cases ever tried in the United States was heard in St. Louis' Old Courthouse. Supreme Court decision in 1857, and hastened the start of the Civil War. John Emerson died the following year, and it is believed that Mrs. Emerson hired out Dred and Harriet Scott to work for other families.
When the first case began in 1847, Dred Scott was about 50 years old. He was born in Virginia around 1799, and was the property, as his parents had been, of the Peter Blow family. He had spent his entire life as a slave, and was illiterate. Dred Scott moved to St. Louis with the Blows in 1830, but was soon sold due to his master's financial problems. He was purchased by Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks, and accompanied him to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. During this period, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, also a slave, at Fort Snelling; they later had two children, Eliza and Lizzie. John Emerson married Irene Sanford during a brief stay in Louisiana. In 1842, the Scott's returned with Dr. and Mrs. Emerson to St. Louis. John Emerson died the following year, and it is believed that Mrs. Emerson hired out Dred Scott, Harriet, and their children to work for other families.
On April 6th, 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit against Irene Emerson for their freedom. For almost nine years, Scott had lived in free territories, yet made no attempt to end his servitude. It is not known for sure why he chose this particular time for the suit, although historians have considered three possibilities: He may have been dissatisfied with being hired out; Mrs. Emerson might have been planning to sell him; or he may have offered to buy his own freedom and been refused. It is known that the suit was not brought for political reasons. It is thought that friends in St. Louis who opposed slavery had encouraged Scott to sue for his freedom on the grounds that he had once lived in a free territory. In the past, Missouri courts supported the doctrine of "once free, always free." Dred Scott could not read or write and had no money. He needed help with his suit. John Anderson, the Scott's minister, may have been influential in their decision to sue, and the Blow family, Dred's original owners, backed him financially. The support of such friends helped the Scotts through nearly eleven years of complex and often disappointing litigation.
It is difficult to understand today, but under the law in 1846 whether or not the Scotts were entitled to their freedom was not as important as the consideration of property rights. If slaves were indeed valuable property, like a car or an expensive home today, could they be taken away from their owners because of where the owner had taken them? In other words, if you drove your car from Missouri to Illinois, and the State of Illinois said that it was illegal to own a car in Illinois, could the authorities take the car away from you when you returned to Missouri? These were the questions being discussed in the Dred Scott case, with one major difference: your car is not human, and cannot sue you. Although few whites considered the human factor in Dred Scott's slave suit, today we acknowledge that it is wrong to hold people against their will and force them to work as people did in the days of slavery.
Dred Scott case: the Supreme Court decision
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|Click here for the text of this historical document. In March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared that all blacks -- slaves as well as free -- were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permiting slavery in all of the country's territories.|
The case before the court was that of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott, a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri, had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom.
Taney -- a staunch supporter of slavery and intent on protecting southerners from northern aggression -- wrote in the Court's majority opinion that, because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The framers of the Constitution, he wrote, believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."
Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase, "all men are created equal," Taney reasoned that "it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration. . . ."
Abolitionists were incensed. Although disappointed, Frederick Douglass, found a bright side to the decision and announced, "my hopes were never brighter than now." For Douglass, the decision would bring slavery to the attention of the nation and was a step toward slavery's ultimate destruction.