The Dred Scott Case
The Dred Scott Case
The Plaintiff. Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia around 1802. In 1830 his owner took him west to St. Louis, Missouri, where he was sold to Dr. John Emerson, an army surgeon. Emerson carried Scott with him as he would any other piece of property, first to Fort Armstrong, Illinois, from 1833 to 1836, then to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory from 1836 to 1838. The latter sojourn brought Scott into territory where slavery had been explicitly prohibited under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which excluded slavery in the land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase north of latitude 36°30′), and the Wisconsin Enabling Act. This last piece of legislation stated that the Wisconsin Territory would be subject to the same laws that governed Michigan. Since Michigan prohibited slavery, the institution became illegal in Wisconsin as well. While in Wisconsin, Scott married another slave, Harriet Robinson, in a ceremony performed by her owner. However, because marriage was, in the eyes of the law, a contract and slaves lacked the legal right to make contracts, observers wondered about the intent of Scott’s and Robinson’s owners as well as the legal implications of allowing the marriage in the first place. Did the fact of their marriage mean that Scott and Robinson were recognized as free? When Emerson died suddenly in December 1843, ownership of Scott, Robinson, and their daughter Eliza passed to the doctor’s widow. In 1846 Scott attempted to purchase freedom for himself and his family. Irene Emerson refused, and in April, Scott sued for his freedom.
The Missouri Courts. The Scott case spent six years in the Missouri court system. The first trial, held in 1847, was dismissed on a technicality. Three years later a circuit court in St. Louis determined that Scott’s long term of residence in a free territory made him and his family free. Emerson appealed, and the case moved to the Missouri Supreme Court. In 1852, in the case of Scott v. Emerson, the state supreme court overturned the lower court’s ruling and determined that Scott was still a slave. In making this decision the state’s jurists ignored legal precedent and made concessions to proslavery politics and ideology. With new lawyers, Scott’s case moved to the federal court system. The new suit was made against John Sanford of New York, the brother of Irene Emerson who managed his sister’s estate. The case came to trial in May 1854. Scott sued in diversity—a reference used when the plaintiff and defendant in a suit are citizens of different states. In other words, Scott claimed that he was a citizen of Missouri and Sanford a citizen of New York. Sanford’s lawyers responded with a plea in abatement, or a call to stop the suit and throw it out. They argued that no court had jurisdiction over the case. Scott, they declared, was “not a citizen of the state of Missouri, as alleged in his declaration, because he is a negro of African descent.” Sanford argued that no black could be a citizen of the state of Missouri whether his or her status was slave or free. Therefore, no black, per se, could legally execute a suit in a federal court since this right was reserved exclusively for citizens. The federal court upheld the state supreme court’s ruling, and Scott remained a slave.
The Supreme Court. Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1854, and after long delays the case was
finally heard in February 1856. The heart of the case rested on three crucial issues. First, could people of African descent, slave or free, be citizens of the United States? Second, did the federal government have the power to ban slavery in the Western territories? Third, was the Missouri Compromise and its geographical limitations on slavery constitutional? Scott’s chances at winning freedom for himself and his family were small since a majority of the Supreme Court justices were either Southerners, who had themselves held slaves, or Southern sympathizers. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a former slave owner, openly supported the South and its “peculiar institution.”
Taney’s Decision. Writing for the 7-2 majority in Dred Scott v. Sandford (the name Sandford was the result of a record-keeping error), Taney handed down three rulings. First, he wrote that African Americans were “beings of an inferior order … altogether unfit to associate with the white race.” They were, he continued, members of a group that “had no rights which white men were bound to respect.” He then determined that Scott was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue in a federal court. Second, Taney maintained that moving in and out of free states and residing for long periods in those states had no effect on Scott’s status. Despite their migrations, Scott and his family remained slaves. Finally and most significant, Taney and the Court’s majority ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional since Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in any territory (as opposed to a state).
Conclusions. In rendering his judgment Taney had reached beyond the mere application of legal and constitutional principles. He attempted to settle the most critical and divisive issue in American politics and society in a single stroke: the slavery question. Ultimately the results led to disaster. The decision that the remaining territories, including a significant portion of the lands taken as a result of the Mexican War, were open to the expansion of slavery gave the sectional conflict a new and dangerous urgency. The South’s defenders hailed the decision as a monumental victory. The future of that section’s agricultural economy depended not only on its primary system of labor but also on its expansion into the fertile Western territories that had previously banned slavery. The Supreme Court had given the South’s distinct culture, power structure, and economy new life in part by interpreting the Constitution in such a way that it favored property rights over natural rights. Opponents of slavery claimed that this decision was the work of a vast conspiracy masterminded by “the slave power.” The Dred Scott decision revealed that freedom was in jeopardy everywhere, they warned. Campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 1858, Abraham Lincoln warned his audience of the logical outcome of this ruling: “We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their state free; and we shall awake to the reality,
Frederick Douglass Responds
During much of the nineteenth century Frederick Douglass was recognized as “the Representative Colored Man of the United States.” Born a slave in Tuckahoe, Maryland, he escaped and began one of the most extraordinary public careers in U.S. history. Although Douglass was many things over the course of his long and eventful life—orator, reformer, editor, publisher, and diplomat—he was known first as a leader in the abolitionist movement and one of its most passionate and eloquent champions.
The following speech, a response to the Dred Scott decision, was delivered to the American Anti-Slavery Society on 11 May 1857. Douglass refuted Judge Roger B. Taney’s assertion that the Constitution did not apply to African Americans and that it was a proslavery document.
The argument here is, that the Constitution comes down to us from a slaveholding period and a slaveholding people; and that, therefore, we are bound to suppose that the Constitution recognizes colored people of African descent, the victims of slavery at that time, as debarred forever from all participation in the benefit of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, although the plain reading of both includes them in their beneficent range.
As a man, an American, a citizen, a colored man of both Anglo-Saxon and African descent, I denounce this representation as a most scandalous and devilish perversion of the Constitution, and a brazen misstatement of the facts of history ….
Washington and Jefferson, and Adams, and Jay, and Franklin, and Rush, and Hamilton, and a host of others, held no such degrading views on the subject as are imputed by Judge Taney to the Fathers of the Republic…. All at that time, looked for the gradual but certain abolition of slavery, and shaped the Constitution with a view to this grand result ….
It may, however, be asked, if the Constitution were so framed that the rights of all the people were naturally protected by it, how happens it that a large part of the people have been held in slavery ever since its adoption? Have the people mistaken the requirements of their own Constitution?
The answer is ready. The Constitution is one thing, its administration is another, and, in this instance, a very different and opposite thing. I am here to vindicate the law, not the administration of the law. It is the written Constitution, not the unwritten Constitution, that is now before us. If, in the whole range of the Constitution, you can find no warrant for slavery, then we may properly claim it for liberty.
Good and wholesome laws are often found dead on the statute book. We may condemn the practice under them and against them, but never the law itself. To condemn the good law with the wicked practice is to weaken, not to strengthen out testimony ….
The American people have made void our Constitution by just such traditions as Judge Taney … [has] been giving the world of late, as the true light in which to view the Constitution of the United States.
It may be said that it is quite true that the Constitution was designed to secure the blessings of liberty and justice to the people who made it, and to the posterity of the people who made it, but was never designed to do any such thing for the colored people of African descent.
This is Judge Taney’s argument … but it is not the argument of the Constitution. The Constitution imposes no such mean and satanic limitations upon its own beneficent operation. And, if the Constitution makes none, I beg to know what right has any body, outside of the Constitution, for the special accommodation of slaveholding villainy, to impose such a construction upon the Constitution?
The Constitution knows all the human inhabitants of this country as ‘the people.’ It makes, as I have said before, no discrimination in favor of, or against, any class of the people, but is fitted to protect and preserve the rights of all, without reference to color, size, or any physical peculiarities. Besides, it has been shown by William Goodell and others, that in eleven out of the old thirteen States, colored men were legal voters at the time of the adoption of the Constitution.
In conclusion, let me say, all I ask of the American people is, that they live up to the Constitution, adopt its principles, imbibe its spirit and enforce its provisions.
When this is done, the wounds of my bleeding people will be healed, the chain will no longer rust on their ankles, their backs will no longer be torn by the bloody lash, and liberty, the glorious birthright of our common humanity, will become the inheritance of all the inhabitants of this highly favored country.
Source: Paul Finkelman, ed., Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), pp. 169-182.
instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave state.”
Don Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978);
Paul Finkelman, ed., Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997);
William Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1864 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990);
William Wiecek, “Slavery and Abolition before the United States Supreme Court, 1820-1860,” Journal of American History, 65 (January 1979): 34-59.