Dred Scott was an enslaved African American man in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as the “Dred Scott case”. Scott claimed that he and his wife should be granted their freedom because they had lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory for four years, where slavery was illegal.
The United States Supreme Court decided 7–2 against Scott, finding that neither he nor any other person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States, and therefore Scott could not bring suit in federal court under diversity of citizenship rules. Moreover, Scott’s temporary residence outside Missouri did not bring about his emancipation under the Missouri Compromise, which the court ruled unconstitutional as it would “improperly deprive Scott’s owner of his legal property”.
While Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had hoped to settle issues related to slavery and Congressional authority by this decision, it aroused public outrage, deepened sectional tensions between the northern and southern states, and hastened the eventual explosion of their differences into the American Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments nullified the decision.
Dred Scott was born into slavery c. 1799 in Southampton County, Virginia. In 1818, Peter Blow and his family took their six slaves to Alabama, where the family ran an unsuccessful farm in a location near Huntsville that is now occupied by Oakwood University. Dred Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon serving in the United States Army, who planned to move to Rock Island, Illinois. After Scott learned this, he attempted to run away. Eventually, he was captured in the “Lucas Swamps” of Missouri and taken back. Blow died in 1832, and historians debate whether Scott was sold to Emerson before or after Blow’s death.
In 1836, Emerson and Scott went to Fort Armstrong, in the free state of Illinois. In 1837, Emerson took Scott to Fort Snelling, in what is now the state of Minnesota and was then in the free territory of Wisconsin. There, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by Lawrence Taliaferro. The marriage was formalized in a civil ceremony presided over by Taliaferro, who was a justice of the peace. Since slave marriages had no legal sanction, supporters of Scott would later point to this ceremony as evidence that Scott was being treated as a free man. Nevertheless, Taliaferro transferred Harriet to Emerson, who treated the Scotts as his slaves.
Emerson moved to Jefferson Barracks in 1837, leaving the Scott family behind and leasing them out to other officers. In February 1838, Emerson met and married Eliza Irene Sanford at Fort Jesup in Louisiana, whereupon he sent for the Scotts to join him. While on a steamboat on the Mississippi River, between the free state of Illinois and the Iowa district of Wisconsin Territory, Harriet Scott gave birth to their first child, whom they named Eliza after their mistress. They later had a daughter, Lizzie. Eventually, they would also have two sons, but neither survived past infancy.
The Emersons and Scotts returned to Missouri in 1840. 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 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, offering $300, about $8,000 in current value. However, Irene Emerson refused, prompting Scott to resort to legal recourse.
The Dred Scott case of the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied Scott his freedom by ruling that negro-slave descendants were not U.S. citizens, was the end of years of legal cases during 1846–1857, in lower federal district court and Missouri courts which had granted Dred Scott freedom for about 2 years, until overturned upon appeal.
Back in 1846, having failed to purchase his freedom, Scott filed legal suit in St. Louis Circuit Court. Scott stood on solid legal ground, because Missouri precedent dating back to 1824 had held that slaves freed through prolonged residence in a free state would remain free when taken back to Missouri. The doctrine was known as “Once free, always free”. Scott and his wife had resided for two years in free states and free territories, and his eldest daughter had been born on the Mississippi River, between a free state and a free territory.
Dred Scott was listed as the only plaintiff in the case, but his wife, Harriet, played a critical role, pushing him to pursue freedom on behalf of their family. She was a frequent churchgoer, and in St. Louis, her church pastor (a well-known abolitionist) connected the Scotts to their first lawyer. The Scott children were around the age of ten at the time the case was originally filed, which was the age when younger slaves became more valuable assets for slave owners to sell. To prevent the family from breaking up, Harriet urged Dred to take action.
The Scott v. Emerson case was tried in 1847 in the federal-state courthouse in St. Louis. Dred Scott’s lawyer was originally Francis B. Murdoch and later Charles D. Drake. Because more than a year elapsed from the time of the initial petition filing until the trial, Drake moved away from St. Louis during that time. Samuel M. Bay tried the case in court. The verdict went against Scott, as testimony that established his ownership by Mrs. Emerson was ruled to be hearsay. However, the judge called for a retrial, which was finally held in January 1850. This time, direct evidence was introduced that Emerson owned Scott, and the jury ruled in favor of Scott’s freedom.
Irene Emerson appealed the verdict. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the lower court ruling, arguing that growing antislavery sentiment in the free states made it no longer necessary for Missouri to defer to the laws of free states. In doing so, the court had overturned 28 years of precedent in Missouri. Justice Hamilton R. Gamble, who was later appointed governor of Missouri, sharply disagreed with the majority decision and wrote a dissenting opinion.
In 1853, Scott again sued; this time under federal law. Irene Emerson had moved to Massachusetts, and Scott had been transferred to Irene Emerson’s brother, John F. A. Sanford. Because Sanford was a citizen of New York, while Scott would be a citizen of Missouri if he were free, the Federal courts had diversity jurisdiction over the case. After losing again in federal district court, they appealed to the United States Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford. (The name is spelled “Sandford” in the court decision due to a clerical error.)
On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion. Taney ruled, with 3 major issues, that: Any person 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 either freedom or citizenship within the Northwest Territory to non-white individuals. The provisions of the Act of 1820, known as the Missouri Compromise, were voided as a legislative act, since the act exceeded the powers of Congress, insofar as it attempted to exclude slavery and impart freedom and citizenship to non-white persons in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase.
The Court had ruled that African Americans had no claim to freedom or citizenship. Since they were not citizens, they did not possess the legal standing to bring suit in a federal court. As slaves were private property, Congress did not have the power to regulate slavery in the territories and could not revoke a slave owner’s rights based on where he lived. This decision nullified the essence of the Missouri Compromise, which divided territories into jurisdictions either free or slave. Speaking for the majority, Taney ruled that because Scott was simply considered the private property of his owners, he was subject to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting the taking of property from its owner “without due process”.
The Scott decision increased tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in both North and South, further pushing the country towards the brink of civil war. Ultimately after the Civil War, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution settled the issue of Black citizenship via Section 1 of that Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside …
Scott’s freedom suit before the state courts was backed financially by Peter Blow’s children, who had turned against slavery in the decade since they sold Dred Scott. Henry Taylor Blow became a Republican Congressman after the Civil War, Charlotte Taylor Blow married the son of an abolitionist newspaper editor, and Martha Ella Blow married Charles D. Drake, one of Scott’s lawyers who became a Republican Senator. Members of the Blow family signed as security for Scott’s legal fees and secured the services of local lawyers. While the case was pending, Scott was leased out by the St. Louis County sheriff, who held the payments in escrow. In 1851, Scott was leased by Charles Edmund LaBeaume, whose sister had married into the Blow family. Scott worked as a janitor at LaBeaume’s law office, which was shared with Roswell Field.
After the Missouri Supreme Court decision, the Blow family concluded that the case was hopeless and decided that they could no longer pay Scott’s legal fees. Roswell Field agreed to represent Scott pro bono before the federal courts. Scott was represented before the U.S. Supreme Court by Montgomery Blair, an abolitionist who later joined Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet as Postmaster General, and George Curtis, whose brother Benjamin sat on the Supreme Court and wrote one of the two dissents in Dred Scott v. Sandford.
In 1850, Irene Emerson remarried and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. Her new husband, Calvin C. Chaffee, was an abolitionist who was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1854. Chaffee was fiercely attacked by pro-slavery newspapers for his apparent hypocrisy in owning slaves. In response, Chaffee claimed that neither he nor Mrs. Chaffee even knew about the case until it was “noticed for trial” and wrote to Montgomery Blair, “my wife … desires to know whether she has the legal power and right to emancipate the Dred Scott family.”
The strange circumstances of the Dred Scott case raised suspicions at the time of collusion to create a test case. Abolitionist newspapers charged that slaveholders colluded to name a New Yorker as defendant, while pro-slavery newspapers charged collusion on the abolitionist side. It was shown a century later that John Sanford never owned Dred Scott, nor did he serve as executor of Dr. Emerson’s will. It was unnecessary to find a New Yorker to secure diversity jurisdiction of the federal courts, as Irene Emerson Chaffee had become a resident of Massachusetts. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Roswell Field advised Dr. Chaffee that Mrs. Chaffee had full powers over Scott. However, Sanford had been involved in the case since the beginning, as he’d secured a lawyer to defend Mrs. Emerson in the original state lawsuit, before she married Chaffee.
Following the ruling, the Chaffees deeded the Scott family to Taylor Blow, who manumitted them on May 26, 1857. Scott worked as a porter in a St. Louis hotel, but his freedom was short-lived; he died from tuberculosis in September 1858. He was survived by his wife and his two daughters.
Scott was originally interred in Wesleyan Cemetery in St. Louis. When this cemetery was closed nine years later, Taylor Blow transferred Scott’s coffin to an unmarked plot in the nearby Catholic Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, which permitted burial of non-Catholic slaves by Catholic owners. A local tradition later developed of placing Lincoln pennies on top of Scott’s gravestone for good luck.
Harriet Scott was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale, Missouri. She outlived her husband by 18 years, dying on June 17, 1876.
The newspaper coverage of the court ruling and the 10-year legal battle raised awareness of slavery in non-slave states. The arguments for freedom were later used by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. The harsh words of the decision built popular opinion and voter sentiment for his Emancipation Proclamation and the three constitutional amendments ratified shortly after the Civil War: the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, abolishing slavery, granting former slaves citizenship, and conferring citizenship to anyone born in the United States and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” (excluding those subject to a foreign power such as children of foreign ambassadors).