Dred Scott – a summary

Dred Scott was a slave who, through the courts, tried to obtain his and his family’s freedom. Eventually, in 1857, after eleven years of fighting, the US Supreme Court found against him, declaring that as an African descendent he was not an American citizen and therefore could not use the courts to sue for freedom. The decision further widened the gulf between the pro and anti-slavery movements. Less than three years after the decision, the US was at war.

Born in Virginia about 1799, Dred Scott was born a slave and brought up on the St Louis estate of his master, Peter Blow. In 1832, Blow died and Scott was purchased by an army surgeon, Dr John Emerson. In the course of his work, Emerson was posted to various different posts, and each time he took Scott with him. From Missouri, Emerson was posted to Illinois, a free state, then, after a stay of two and a half years, to the Wisconsin Territory, a free territory. It was in Wisconsin that Scott met fellow-slave, Harriet Robinson. Upon their marriage, Robinson also became the property of Dr Emerson. The Scotts were to have two children.

Dred ScottAfter several years away, Emerson, and his new wife, Irene, returned to Missouri, a slave state. Dr Emerson died in 1843, and Scott attempted to buy his freedom from Emerson’s widow, offering her the princely sum of $300. She refused.

Scott v Emerson

Not to be thwarted, in 1847, Dred and Harriet Scott took their case to court, arguing that as they had resided in two free states they, and their children, should be rendered freed from the bonds of servitude. The Scotts lost the case on a technicality but, in 1851, they were allowed a re-trial within the lower court. This time, the court agreed with the Scotts and granted them their freedom. But in 1852, the higher court, the Missouri Supreme Court, overturned the decision. Mrs Emerson moved away from Missouri, leaving her late husband’s estate, including its slaves, to her brother, John F A Sanford.

Scott v Sanford

Two years later, the Scotts took their case a step higher to the federal court of the US Circuit Court in Missouri but were again unsuccessful as the court upheld the earlier decision of the Missouri Supreme Court. No doubt daunted by this latest setback, the Scotts and their lawyers nonetheless decided to take their case yet further – to the US Supreme Court.

But the odds were stacked against Dred Scott and his wife from the start – seven of the nine justices of the Supreme Court were either slave owners or at least pro-slavery. Sure enough on 6 March 1857, Chief Justice, Roger B Taney, ruled against the Scotts, stating that people of African ancestry were not eligible as US citizens and therefore had no recourse to the US legal system. Black people, said Taney, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Furthermore, a slave did not become free merely by entering a free state. Therefore, Dred Scott and his wife were to remain enslaved. The court also declared that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, that had set a north-south demarcation line between slave and free states, was unconstitutional. Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery and its spread should be permitted in all newly-emerging US territories.

The American Declaration of Independence may have included the phrase, “all men are created equal” but, Taney argued, “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.”

A Simple Man

harriet scottDred Scott and Harriet (pictured) were returned to Mrs Emerson who soon passed them back to Dred’s original family, the Blows, who, in May 1857, gave the couple their freedom. Dred Scott died a free man of tuberculosis on 17 September 1858 and is buried in St Louis. His headstone reads, “In Memory Of A Simple Man Who Wanted To Be Free.” Harriet lived on for another eighteen years, dying in 1876.

The Dred Scott case further divided the already entrenched issue of slavery and certainly spurred on the newly-formed Republican party and its leader, Abraham Lincoln, to fight the cause of limiting the spread of slavery. In November 1860, three years after the Dred Scott Decision, Lincoln was elected US president and, within weeks, South Carolina became the first of eleven states to break away from the Union. The path to civil war had been forged.
American SlaveryRead more about slavery in the US in American Slavery: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60, and as downloadable audio.

See also Slavery and the Causes of the American Civil War and John Casor – the first slave.