The Dred Scott Decision

In 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit for their freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. This suit began an eleven-year legal fight that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a landmark decision declaring that Scott remain a slave. This decision contributed to rising tensions between the free and slave states just before the American Civil War.

The Dred Scott v. Sandford (although the defendants name was Sanford, it had been misspelled and is still referred to as Sandford) case of 1857 was based on the fact that although he and his wife Harriet Scott were slaves, he had lived with his master Dr. John Emerson in states and territories where slavery was illegal according to both state laws and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, including Illinois and Minnesota (which was then part of the Wisconsin Territory).

Dred Scott was born in Virginia about 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, and later had two children, Eliza and Lizzie.

John Emerson married Irene Sanford during a brief stay in Louisiana. In 1842, the Scotts returned with Dr. and Mrs. Emerson in 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.

Many believe that friends in St. Louis who opposed slavery 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." Since 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  litigation.

The Dred Scott case was first brought to trial in 1847 in a courtroom of the St. Louis' Courthouse. The Scotts lost the first trial because hearsay evidence was presented, but they were granted the right by the judge to a second trial. In the second trial, held in the same courtroom in 1850, a jury heard the evidence and decided that Dred Scott and his family should be free.

Mrs. Emerson appealed her case to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which in 1852 reversed the ruling made at the Old Courthouse, stating that "times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made." The slavery issue was becoming more divisive nationwide, and provided the court with political reasons to return Dred Scott to slavery. The court was saying that Missouri law allowed slavery, and it would uphold the rights of slave-owners in the state at all costs.

Dred Scott was not ready to give up in his fight for freedom for himself and his family and with the help of a new team of lawyers, Dred Scott filed suit in St. Louis Federal Court in 1854 against John F.A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother and executor of the Emerson estate. Since Sanford resided in New York, the case was taken to the Federal courts due to diversity of residence.  The case was decided in favor of Sanford, but Dred Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 7-2 opinion, a majority of the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sanford. Chief Justice Taney wrote the opinion for the Court. 

The Supreme Court first concluded that African Americans were not citizens as defined by the Constitution, and therefore, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts had no jurisdiction to hear this case.  The decision cited Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution which gives federal courts the power to hear cases “between Citizens of different States.”  To determine the definition of “citizens,” the justices considered the intent of the framers of the Constitution.  They noted that at the time the Constitution was written, people of African descent, both slave and free, were “regarded as beings of an inferior order” and were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  Believing that the Court should not “give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted,” the Court concluded that people of African descent were not citizens, and could therefore “claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”  This included the ability to bring suit in federal court.

Even though the Court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear this case because it did not involve “Citizens of different States,” the justices ruled on the merits of case anyway.  They first argued that the power of Congress to regulate the internal workings of the territories that had not yet become states was limited.  They concluded that an act of Congress prohibiting citizens from “owning slaves in the territories is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void.”  The Court thereby struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional because Congress did not have the power under the Constitution to determine whether slavery was allowed in the territories.   

In addition, the Court concluded that slaves could not be made free simply by entering a free state or territory.  This would deprive slave owners of their property without giving them due process of law as required by the Fifth Amendment.  Accordingly, “an act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his property, merely because he  brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States” was unconstitutional.  The Court held, therefore, that Dred Scott and his family were “property” and were not made free simply by virtue of the fact that they were brought into a free territory.

The Dred Scott decision served as an eye-opener to Northerners who believed that slavery was tolerable as long as it stayed in the South. If the decision took away any power Congress once had to regulate slavery in new territories, then slavery could quickly expand into much of the western United States. And once slavery expanded into the territories, it could spread quickly into the once-free states. For many Northerners who had remained silent on the issue, this very real possibility was too scary to ignore. Suddenly many Northerners who had not previously been against the South and against slavery began to realize that if they did not stop slavery now, they might never again have the chance. This growing fear in the North helped further contribute to the Civil War.

Four years after Chief Justice Taney read his infamous Scott v. Sandford decision, parts of the proslavery half of the Union had seceded and the nation was engaged in civil war. Because of the passions it aroused on both sides, Taney's decision certainly accelerated the start of this conflict. Even in 1865, as the long and bloody war drew to a close with the Northern, antislavery side on top, a mere mention of the decision struck a nerve in the Northern Congress. A simple and customary request for a commemorative bust of Taney, to be placed in a hall with busts of all former Supreme Court Chief Justices, was blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress. Charles Sumner, the leader of those who blocked the request, had strong words on the late Chief Justice and his most notorious decision:

"I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteous judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course, the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also."

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on the historic eras of Black history in the United States

The begining - The Revolutionary War

African-American history starts in the 17th century with indentured servitude in the American colonies

The Cotton South - The Civil War

As the cotton-based economy boomed so did slavery, since slaves were needed to man the large-scale and labor-intensive plantations.

Reconstruction Years

The end of Reconstruction was a staggered process, and the period of Republican control ended at different times in different states.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a literary and intellectual flowering that fostered a new black cultural identity that began in Harlem, New York.

Civil Rights Movement

Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X are some of the names that come to mind when we think of the Civil Rights Movement.

Black Lives Matter

In 2013 a new movement to promote justice for African Americans began. Black Lives Matter has swept the nation protesting vilence and injustice.



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