Paralegal Guide: The Dred Scott Case
Early U.S. history was a time filled with oppression, dominance, violence, and slavery. The kidnapping, importation, and enslavement of African peoples was a controversial activity that eventually tore the nation apart by way of the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 and led to the assassination of one of its Presidents, President Abraham Lincoln. However, only a few years prior to this war (the only civil war in U.S. history) a slave by the name of Dred Scott challenged his right to freedom at the highest level of the law in the land: the U.S. Supreme Court. This challenge served to further exacerbate the already-existing tensions between North and South and resulted in arguably the most critically consequential legal case in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court thus far.
As an ongoing effort to provide the best legal resources, compiled below is a summary of the history of the legalities of the Dred Scott case and its significance today, along with links to related websites. This resource is meant to provide students, teachers, and those individuals with an interest in justice, civil rights, and the law in general with relevant information.
Dred Scott was an African-American man born into slavery in the state of Virginia some time between 1795 and 1800. In 1830, Scott went with his owner, a man by the name of Peter Blow and his family, to the state of Missouri. Two years later, in 1832, Scott was purchased by a U.S. Army Major by the name of John Emerson, who was stationed just outside of St. Louis. During his time with Emerson, Scott traveled to and spent time in two free regions, both of which had legally banned slavery: the state of Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory (which became Minnesota). While in the Wisconsin Territory, Emerson allowed Scott to get married. Scott’s marriage was unusual at the time, for under the common law slaves were not considered to be citizens and as a result were forbidden to form legal contracts.
When in 1837 the U.S. Army ordered Emerson back to Missouri, he left Scott and his wife, Harriet, at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory. However, when Emerson was reassigned to Fort Jessup, Louisiana and married Eliza Irene Sanford in 1838, he sent for Scott and his then pregnant wife Harriet. Scott’s first child, a daughter, was born on the steamship on the Mississippi River. Born somewhere between the Iowa Territory and Illinois, she was named Eliza, after Emerson’s new bride. By the end of 1838, the U.S. Army once again assigned Emerson to Fort Snelling; however, by 1840, Mrs. Emerson, Scott, Harriet and their daughter Eliza returned to St. Louis while Emerson fought in the Seminole War. Emerson retired from the U.S. Army in 1842 and died the following year, in the Iowa Territory. Mrs. Emerson inherited Emerson’s estate, which included Scott and his family, and continued to rent out Scott as a source of revenue. When Scott attempted to buy his freedom from Mrs. Emerson, she refused.
Legal History: Pre-Dred Scott v. Sandford
Upon Mrs. Emerson’s refusal to allow Scott to purchase his freedom and the freedom of his family, he sought out an alternative form of action: legal remedy. Scott, who was illiterate, enlisted the help of abolitionist attorneys to help him seek his freedom through the court systems. His claim was that he should be free since he had lived long periods of his life within U.S. jurisdictions that had banned slavery and made it illegal. This case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with Dred Scott v. Sanford, but its precedent began with cases like Somerset v. Stewart (a 1772 British case of the King’s Bench that held that slavery was unlawful in England), Winny v. Whitesides (an 1824 Missouri Supreme Court case that held that a slave owner who takes his or her slave to a free state for a period of time with that slave owners’ intent to make that state his or her home, as well as the home of the slave, results in the emancipation of that slave) and Rachel v. Walker (an 1836 Supreme Court of Missouri case that held that a slave owner forfeited rights to the slave if he or she took that slave to a territory where slavery was prohibited). These cases formed the precedent for Scott in his case, in which he and his lawyers argued that his long-term residence in free territories should result in his emancipation.
The procedural history of Dred Scott v. Sanford encompasses a decade. In 1846, Scott launched a suit entitled Scott v. Emerson, the same year that his second daughter, Lizzie, was born. In June of 1847, the judge dismissed his case due to the fact that Scott failed to produce a witness who would testify that Scott was in fact Mrs. Emerson’s slave. However, Scott and his lawyers persisted; by the end of 1847, Scott was granted a new trial. Mrs. Emerson appealed this court decision, which in 1848 affirmed the 1847 decision of the trial court. The trial began two years later, in 1850; during the two years it took to have the case heard, Scott and his family were placed in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff, who rented out Scott and placed the rental fees in escrow. The jury ruled in favor of Scott. Mrs. Emerson appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, moved to New York, and transferred her role as defendant to her brother, John. F.A. Sandford. In 1852, this court overruled the jury’s decision. In 1853, Scott and his abolitionist attorneys appealed the case to the federal court level, arguing that the federal court had jurisdiction based on diversity, since Mrs. Emerson now resided in New York. In 1854, the federal court upheld the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court – a decision that prompted Scott to appeal to the highest court in the United States: the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Holding in the Dred Scott v. Sandford Case
Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), was a U.S. Supreme Court case. Roger B. Taney, a former Maryland slave owner, was the Chief Justice of this court at the time. In a ruling of seven out of nine Justices, the U.S. Supreme Court held that slaves were merely property, or chattels and thus held no legal rights: they could never become U.S. citizens, were not protected by the U.S. Constitution, and thus could not have standing to bring a suit in a U.S. court. Further, as property owners, slave owners could not be denied their property without due process of the law. It was also held that the U.S. Congress was powerless (ultra vires, or “beyond the powers”) to limit the expansion of slavery within the U.S. federal territories and that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional.
Consequences: Life Post-Dred Scott v. Sandford
As mentioned above, this U.S. Supreme Court ruling resulted in further fanning the flames of what was becoming imminent civil war within the United States. However, precursors to the Civil War, which were the direct result of this 1857 Supreme Court ruling, included: the rise of the Republican Party in popularity over the Whig Party; the Lincoln–Douglas debates; and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency. Another consequence of this legal case was the assassination of President Lincoln, which took place as the Civil War was ending and victory for the Confederates of the North seemed inevitable.
Although the Dred Scott case was never overruled in a court of law, the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment, which was adopted in 1865 and abolished and prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude (with the exception of punishment through a court of law), and its Fourteenth Amendment, which was adopted in 1868, which has three relevant clauses in the first section of this amendment: 1) the Citizenship Clause, which broadly defines citizenship and in effect overrules the Dred Scott decision; 2) the Due Process Clause, which protects its citizens from being denied life, liberty, and property without due process of the law; and 3) the Equal Protection Clause, which ensures equality of U.S. citizens across all U.S. States.
In the end, Scott received emancipation before his death: Peter Blow’s sons bought his freedom and the freedom of his family in 1857 – and event that gained national attention and launched Scott as a local celebrity. He worked in a St. Louis hotel until he died of tuberculosis less than two years later, on November 7, 1858.
References and Additional Resource Materials
- The historical British Somerset v. Stewart case is available online, along with related external links.
- The Winny v. Whitesides case is available online through the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project.
- The Rachel v. Walker case is available online through the Missouri State Archives.
- PBS has an Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery which consists of historical documents, stories, images, and biographies, including background on and the original text of the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Dred Scott v. Sanford.
- Wikipedia’s Dred Scott v. Sanford offers a fairly complete summary of the case, including background, procedural history, the court’s ruling, the public’s reaction, and the final fate of Dred Scott and his family.
- The History Place also offers a summary of Dred Scott, his court case, and its effects.
- HostoryNet.com offers a brief summary of the Dred Scott case in Dred Scott Decision: The Lawsuit That Started The Civil War.
The National Archives houses an online version of the U.S. Constitution, which details the original, official language and text of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Constitutional Amendments.