Dred Scott Decision: 1856

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Dred Scott Decision: 1856

Appellant: Dred Scott
Defendant: John F.A. Sanford
Plaintiff Claim: That Scott, who was a slave, had become a free man whenhis owner had taken him to a state designated as "free" under the 1820 Missouri Compromise
Chief Defense Lawyers: Hugh A. Garland, H.S.Geyer, George W. Goode, Reverdy Johnson, and Lyman D Norris
Chief Lawyers for Appellant Samuel M. Bay, Montgomery Blair, George Ticknor Curtis, Alexander P. Field, Roswell M. Field, and David N. Hall
Justices: John A. Campbell, John Catron, Benjamin R. Curtis, Peter Daniel, Robert Cooper Grier, John McLean, Samuel Nelson, Roger B. Taney, andJames M. Wayne.
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: 1856 December Term
Decision: That Dred Scott was still a slave, regardless of where his owner took him.

SIGNIFICANCE: The Dred Scott decision effectively ended the Missouri Compromise, hardening the political rivalry between North and South and paving the way for the Civil War.

Dred Scott was born in Virginia sometime in the late 1790s, although historical records concerning the exact time and place are incomplete. Because Scott was black and born into slavery, no one at the time would have taken much interest in such details, other than to note the arrival of another piece of property.

Scott's owner was Peter Blow, who owned a reasonably successful plantation. In 1819, Blow took his family and several slaves, including Scott, to Alabama to start a new plantation. Blow grew tired of farming, and in 1830 moved to St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis was then a booming frontier town, and Blow opened a hotel. Both Blow and his wife became seriously ill, and were dead by 1832.

Scott's travels westward in a sense mirrored the expansion of the United States during this time period. From the original 13 states on the Atlantic Seaboard, American colonists had pushed to the Mississippi River and beyond. This expansion gave rise to serious political problems, however. Southern states wanted to bring slavery and the plantation lifestyle into the new territories, whereas the Northern states wanted to keep the territories free. Both sides were afraid that, when portions of the territories were eventually admitted as states, the other side would gain political supremacy in Congress owing to the new states' senators and representatives. In 1820, the North and the South struck a deal called the Missouri Compromise. Missouri was admitted to the union as a slave state and Maine was admitted as a free state, preserving the political balance in Congress. Further, slavery was forbidden in any territory north of, but permitted in any territory south of, Missouri's northern border at approximately 36 degrees latitude north.

After the Blows' deaths, their estate sold Scott to an army doctor named John Emerson. Emerson took Scott with him during tours of duty in Illinois and in that part of the Wisconsin and Iowa Territories which would become Minnesota. Both Illinois and Minnesota were within the free territory of the Missouri Compromise. Emerson returned to St. Louis and died December 29, 1843. He left everything, including Scott, to his wife and appointed as executor his wife's brother, John F.A. Sanford.

Scott Sues for Freedom

Tired of a lifetime of slavery, Scott tried to buy his freedom from the widow Emerson, without success. Scott had acquired more education than most slaves and realized that his travels into free territory might give him a claim to freedom. Represented by former Missouri Attorney General Samuel M. Bay, on April 6, 1846, Scott sued for his freedom in the Missouri Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis. Sanford and the widow Emerson were represented by George W. Goode. Because Sanford was the estate executor for Scott's former master, the official reports bear his name as the primary defendant, misspelled to read "Scott v. Sandford."

Legally, Scott's suit was for assault and false imprisonment. A slave could be punished and kept as property, but a free person could not, so the legal charges were in fact window dressing for the issue of Scott's freedom. On June 30, 1847 the case came to trial before Judge Alexander Hamilton. Bay committed a technical error in presenting the plaintiff's evidence, and the jury returned a verdict that same day in Emerson and Sanford's favor. Hamilton granted Bay's motion for a new trial, which was held on January 12, 1850, again before Judge Hamilton. This time, Scott's lawyers were Alexander P. Field and David N. Hall. Sanford had by this time completely taken over the widow Emerson's affairs and retained Hugh A. Garland and Lyman D. Norris for the defense.

At the second trial, the jury held that Scott was a free man, based on certain Missouri state court precedents that held that even though Missouri was a slave state, residence in a free state or territory resulted in a slave's emancipation. Scott's freedom was short-lived, however.

Sanford appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. After more than two years, Judge William Scott announced that court's decision on March 22, 1852. Scott reversed the jury verdict of the second trial, stating that Dred Scott was still a slave. Although Judge Scott's decision was couched in legal terms concerning states' rights and the legality of slavery within Missouri's borders, in fact the real basis for the decision was the rise to power of pro-slavery Democrats on the court. Judge Scott justified the court's decision to reverse those legal precedents that supported Dred Scott's freedom by stating that blacks were destined to be slaves:

We are almost persuaded that the introduction of slavery amongst [Americans] was, in the providence of God, who makes the evil passions of men subservient to His own glory, a means of placing that unhappy race within the pale of civilized nations.

Scott Tries Federal Courts

Following the Missouri Supreme Court's decision, the case was sent back to Judge Hamilton in St. Louis, who was supposed to issue the final order dismissing the case and returning Scott to slavery. Hamilton procrastinated, however, which gave Scott time to hire a new lawyer and get his case into the federal courts. Scott replaced Field and Hall. His new lawyer was Roswell M. Field, who was unrelated to the previous Field. The new Field realized that Sanford had moved to New York City, and was therefore no longer a resident of Missouri. Therefore, Field initiated new proceedings on November 2, 1853, in federal court, under legal provisions that give federal courts jurisdiction over cases between citizens of different states. This principle is called "diversity jurisdiction," and is still valid today. Diversity jurisdiction enabled Scott, as a citizen of Missouri, to sue Sanford, as a citizen of New York, in federal court. The issue of Scott's freedom was now before Judge Robert W. Wells of the U.S. Court for the District of Missouri, located in St. Louis.

At the circuit court's 1854 April Term, Wells held that Scott was a Missouri "citizen" for diversity jurisdiction purposes, despite the fact of Scott's slavery. The case then went to trial, which was held on May 15, 1854. In this, Scott's third freedom trial, the jury ruled in Sanford's favor and held that Scott was still a slave. This was despite the fact that Wells, who was a Southerner, was sympathetic to Scott's cause. Field promptly appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. He convinced the distinguished lawyer Montgomery Blair to represent Scott before the Supreme Court, although Scott was virtually penniless.

Blair, who also was originally from Missouri, had successfully pursued political and legal ambitions in Washington. His residence was the now-famous Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue. Blair was assisted by George Ticknor Curtis. With the assistance of Southern pro-slavery interests, who recognized the potential importance of the Scott case, Sanford also retained some very eminent lawyers. Sanford was represented before the Supreme Court by former Senator Henry S. Geyer, who like Blair had come from Missouri and made a name for himself as a Washington lawyer. Geyer was assisted by former Senator and U.S. Attorney General Reverdy Johnson, who was a personal friend of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

Victory for Slavery, Defeat for Scott

The Scott case was filed with the Supreme Court on December 30, 1854, and set for oral argument on the Court's February 1856 Term before Justices John A. Campbell, John Catron, Benjamin R. Curtis, Peter Daniel, Robert Cooper Grier, John McLean, Samuel Nelson, Roger Brooke Taney, and James M. Wayne.

The political makeup of the Court would weigh heavily in its eventual decision. Southern and pro-slavery justices had a clear majority. Campbell was from Alabama. Catron was from Tennessee. Curtis was from Massachusetts, but was sympathetic to the South. Daniel was from Virginia. Grier was from Pennsylvania, but he was a conservative states' rights advocate. McLean, from Ohio, was the only openly anti-slavery justice on the Court. Nelson was from New York, but like Grier he was a defender of states' rights and lukewarm to the anti-slavery cause. Taney, the chief justice, was from Maryland and the leader of the Court's Southern majority. Finally, Wayne was from Georgia. The justices also were conscious of the fact that 1856 was an election year, and that the Scott decision would have important political consequences.

During the 1856 February Term, the justices listened to the parties' arguments for three days. Scott's attorneys presented the "free soil" argument, one favored by Northern abolitionists: once a slave stepped into a free state or territory, he or she was emancipated, or else the power to prohibit slavery was meaningless. Sanford's attorneys presented the states' rights argument, which favored the institution of slavery: Scott had been a slave in Missouri, he had returned to Missouri, and had subjected himself to the jurisdiction of Missouri law and Missouri courts. Therefore, Missouri was entitled to declare Scott a slave, and ignore the fact that Scott would not be a slave elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, most of the justices were in favor of rejecting Scott's freedom plea. However, they could not agree on the proper legal grounds. Some justices wanted to hold that a slave couldn't sue in federal court, other justices wanted to discuss congressional power to prohibit slavery in the territories and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. The justices decided to postpone their decision until after the presidential election and ordered Scott's and Sanford's lawyers to re-argue the case during the Court's 1856 December Term.

In November 1856, Democrat James Buchanan was elected president. Buchanan, indifferent to the slavery issue, would sit idly by over the next four years while the country was split into North and South and headed toward civil war. After the second round of oral argument in December, during which the parties reiterated the same basic positions, Chief Justice Taney announced the decision of the majority of the Court. Taney and six other justices voted to hold that Scott was still a slave. Taney refused to recognize any rights for blacks as citizens under the U.S. Constitution:

We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.

From this holding, Taney went on to state that Scott was a slave wherever he went, and could be reclaimed at any time by his lawful owner under that provision of the Constitution that forbids Congress from depriving Americans of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. Taney held that Scott was "property" and therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional:

An Act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States, and who had committed no offense against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.

Scott was a slave once again, and the South had won an important victory. The Missouri Compromise, which had preserved the political status quo for nearly 40 years, was swept away. The North would eventually prevail and abolish slavery, but it would do so only after many battles of a much different and bloodier nature during the Civil War.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ehrlich, Walter. They Have No Rights: Dred Scott's Straggle for Freedom. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Fehrenbacher, Don Edward. Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford Universitv Press, 1981.

Kutler, Stanley I. The Dred Scott Decision: Law or Politics? Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

McGinty, Brian. "Dred Scott's Fight for Freedom Brought Him a Heap O' Trouble." American History Illustrated (May 1981): 34-39.

Sudo, Phil. "Five Little People Who Changed U.S. History." Scholastic Update (January 26, 1990):8-10.