Dred Scott was born as a slave in Virginia and died a free man in Missouri in 1858. Scott’s legacy Supreme Court case served as a major push towards the Civil War, challenging the states on slavery, citizenship, and state sovereignty.
The specifics of Dred Scott's early life are unknown, but it is likely that he was born around 1800 in Virginia. Early in his life, Scott became the property of Peter Blow, a southern planter and slaveholder.
At Fort Snelling, Scott married a young enslaved woman named Harriet Robinson, and they had two daughters, Lizzie and Eliza. Emerson later took the Scott family to St. Louis where they served Emerson's wife, Irene. When Emerson died in 1843, his widow continued to own the Scott family and hire them out as servants and laborers.
she prays your honor to allow her to sue in said Court that said Irene Emerson in order to establish her right to freedom and she will pray be.
Harriet X of Color
The court granted Dred and Harriet Scott leave to sue Irene Emerson for freedom. Dred and Harriet, however, decided to pursue only Dred's case, as both were identical.
Once Free, Always Free
Dred and Harriet Scott’s freedom suits were based on a Missouri Supreme Court precedent set in an 1824 freedom suit, Winny v. Whitesides, in which the enslaved Winny won her freedom after living in a free territory. This decision set the Missouri precedent for freedom suits, "once free, always free."
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territories.
Article the Sixth. There shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary Servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.
In 1850 the St. Louis Circuit Court ruled in favor of Scott.
Irene Emerson appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, which overturned the St. Louis Circuit Court decision and ruled in favor of Emerson.
Scott sued again in 1853 under federal law. By then, Emerson had moved to Massachusetts and left ownership of the Scott family to her brother, John Sandford.
Scott lost again in a federal district court, appealing then to the United States Supreme Court.
The Slavery Crisis
By the time Scott v. Sandford reached the Supreme Court in 1854, the United States was in crisis over slavery. The expansion of slavery and fugitive slave laws had both free and slave states on edge, unwilling to compromise any further. Scott v. Sandford became a critical test for the United States to prove its stance on slavery and state sovereignty.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney spoke for the 7-2 majority decision and made two major pronouncements:
1) African Americans, free or enslaved, could never be US citizens, and
2) Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in territories that had not been part of the United States when the Constitution was ratified.
Learn more about the decision here.
Taney on African Americans:
...they were at that time [of the Constitution’s ratification] 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.
On territorial powers:
The powers over person and property of which we speak are not only not granted to Congress, but are in express terms denied, and they are forbidden to exercise them.
Learn more about the Taney court here.
Justice McLean on citizenship:
Being born under our Constitution and laws, no naturalization is required, as one of foreign birth, to make him a citizen. The most general and appropriate definition of the term citizen is a ‘freeman.' Being a freeman, and having his domicil in a State different from that of the defendant, he is a citizen within the act of Congress, and the courts of the Union are open to him.
Justice Curtis on African American history:
...they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… no argument can obscure, that in some of the original thirteen states, free colored persons, before and at the time of the formation of the Constitution, were citizens of those states.
Your fathers have said that man’s right to liberty is self-evident. There is no need of argument to make it clear. The voices of nature, of conscience, of reason, and of revelation, proclaim it as the right of all rights, the foundation of all trust, and of all responsibility. Man was born with it. It was his before he comprehended it...
To decide against this right in the person of Dred Scott, or the humblest and most whip-scarred bondman in the land, is to decide against God.
Abraham Lincoln spoke out against the Dred Scott decision in his famous "House Divided" speech in June of 1858:
Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and put it in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old, as well as new—Do you doubt it? Study the Dred Scott decision, and then see, how little, even now, remains to be done—
Although the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the rebel states, it did not offer freedom for slaves in states that had remained loyal to the Union.
The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) officially abolished slavery, stating:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.