Dred Scott first went to trial to sue for his freedom in 1847. Ten years later, after a decade of appeals and court reversals, his case was finally brought before the United States Supreme Court. In what is perhaps the most infamous case in its history, the court decided that all people of African ancestry -- slaves as well as those who were free -- could never become citizens of the United States and therefore could not sue in federal court. The court also ruled that the federal government did not have the power to prohibit slavery in its territories. Scott, needless to say, remained a slave.
Born around 1800, Scott migrated westward with his master, Peter Blow. They travelled from Scott's home state of Virginia to Alabama and then, in 1830, to St. Louis, Missouri. Two years later Peter Blow died; Scott was subsequently bought by army surgeon Dr. John Emerson, who later took Scott to the free state of Illinois. In the spring of 1836, after a stay of two and a half years, Emerson moved to a fort in the Wisconsin Territory, taking Scott along. While there, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by a local justice of the peace. Ownership of Harriet was transferred to Emerson.
Scott's extended stay in Illinois, a free state, gave him the legal standing to make a claim for freedom, as did his extended stay in Wisconsin, where slavery was also prohibited. But Scott never made the claim while living in the free lands -- perhaps because he was unaware of his rights at the time, or perhaps because he was content with his master. After two years, the army transferred Emerson to the south: first to St Louis, then to Louisiana. A little over a year later, 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 travelled over a thousand miles, apparently unaccompanied, down the Mississippi River to meet their master. 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 went to trial in June of 1847, but lost on a technicality -- he couldn't prove that he and Harriet were owned by Emerson's widow. The following year the Missouri Supreme Court decided that case should be retried. In an 1850 retrial, the the St Louis circuit court ruled that Scott and his family were free. Two years later the Missouri Supreme Court stepped in again, reversing the decision of the lower court. Scott and his lawyers then brought his case to a federal court, the United States Circuit Court in Missouri. In 1854, the Circuit Court upheld the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court. There was now only one other place to go. Scott appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court.
The nine justices of the Supreme Court of 1856 certainly had biases regarding slavery. Seven had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents from the South, and of these, five were from slave-holding families. Still, if the case had gone directly from the state supreme court to the federal supreme court, the federal court probably would have upheld the state's ruling, citing a previously established decision that gave states the authority to determine the status of its inhabitants. But, in his attempt to bring his case to the federal courts, Scott had claimed that he and the case's defendant (Mrs. Emerson's brother, John Sanford, who lived in New York) were citizens from different states. The main issues for the Supreme Court, therefore, were whether it had jurisdiction to try the case and whether Scott was indeed a citizen.
The decision of the court was read in March of 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney -- a staunch supporter of slavery -- wrote the "majority opinion" for the court. It stated that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, legislation which restricted slavery in certain territories, unconstitutional.
While the decision was well-received by slaveholders in the South, many northerners were outraged. The decision greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party and his subsequent election, which in turn led to the South's secession from the Union.
Peter Blow's sons, childhood friends of Scott, had helped pay Scott's legal fees through the years. After the Supreme Court's decision, the former master's sons purchased Scott and his wife and set them free.
Dred Scott died nine months later.
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Dred Scott case: the Supreme Court decision
Lincoln's "House Divided" speech
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Dred Scott, (born c. 1799, Southampton county, Virginia, U.S.—died September 17, 1858, St. Louis, Missouri), African American slave at the centre of the U.S. Supreme Court’s pivotal Dred Scott decision of 1857 (Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford). The ruling rejected Scott’s plea for emancipation—which he based on his temporary residence in a free state and territory, in which slavery was prohibited—and struck down the Missouri Compromise (1820), thereby making slavery legal in all U.S. territories.
Life as a slave
Dred Scott was born a slave in Southampton county, Virginia, around 1799. His original owner, Peter Blow, moved to Alabama in 1818 and then relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1830, taking with him his property—including his slaves—as he moved west. Blow died in 1832, and Dr. John Emerson, an army surgeon, purchased Scott.
From December 1, 1833, until May 4, 1836, Emerson served as the post physician at Fort Armstrong, Illinois, near the present city of Rock Island. Scott lived with Emerson on the army post. Because Illinois was a free state, Scott could have claimed his freedom during these years. For reasons unknown, however, he did not do so.
In 1836 Scott accompanied Emerson to the doctor’s new posting at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory. Although slavery was illegal in the Wisconsin Territory, Scott remained a slave at Fort Snelling from his arrival through his departure in April 1838. During those two years he met and married Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by Major Lawrence Taliaferro, the Indian agent stationed there. Neither Scott nor his wife claimed freedom at this time, and at some point Harriet’s ownership passed into Emerson’s hands. In November 1837 the army transferred Emerson to Fort Jesup in Louisiana, where he met and married Eliza Irene Sanford. Emerson then sent for his slaves, and the Scotts traveled down the Mississippi River to Louisiana, meeting up with Emerson in April. The two passed through free jurisdictions on the voyage, but once again they did not claim their freedom.
When the army sent Emerson to Florida to serve during the Seminole War, he settled his wife and slaves in St. Louis, Missouri. After the fighting ended, Emerson went to the Iowa Territory, but the Scotts remained in St. Louis, where they apparently hired out their services to various people. In December 1843 Emerson suddenly died, leaving his estate—including the Scotts—to his widow. For the next three years the Scotts worked as hired slaves, with the money they earned going to Irene Emerson. Scott offered to purchase his freedom, but Irene Emerson refused to sell him to himself, and in April 1846 he began the legal proceedings that would eventually bring his case to the Supreme Court, which issued the seminal ruling for which he became famous.
Final days as a freedman
Dred Scott did, in fact, get his freedom, but not through the courts. Irene Emerson’s second husband, the abolitionist doctor Calvin Chaffee, now a Massachusetts representative, learned that his wife owned the most famous slave in America just before the court handed down its momentous decision in Scott’s case on March 6, 1857. Defenders of slavery ridiculed the hypocrisy of a man who owned slaves and yet spoke out against slavery. Since at that time a husband controlled his wife’s property, Chaffee immediately transferred ownership of Scott and his family to Taylor Blow in St. Louis; Missouri law allowed only citizens of the state to emancipate slaves there. Irene Emerson Chaffee insisted, however, that she receive the wages the Scotts had earned during the preceding seven years, a sum of $750 that had been tied up because of the court proceedings.
On May 26, 1857, Dred and Harriet Scott appeared in the St. Louis Circuit Court and were formally freed. Scott then took a job as a porter at Barnum’s Hotel in the city and became a celebrity of sorts. Unfortunately, he did not live to enjoy his free status very long. On September 17, 1858, he died of tuberculosis and was buried in St. Louis. Harriet Scott lived until June 1876, long enough to see the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment finally abolish slavery in the United States.