The Dred Scott Decision and Its Bitter Legacy

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

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.

In the 1830s, Blow sold Scott to an army surgeon, John Emerson, who then took him to live in the free state of Illinois, and later at Fort Snelling in Wisconsin Territory—where slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

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.

Freedom Suits
On April 6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott each filed freedom suits with the St. Louis Circuit Court. Because the Scott family had lived as slaves in free territories and states, rather than “sojourned” through, the Missouri Supreme Court precedent “once free, always free” seemed likely to ensure their freedom. 

Historian Matthew Pinsker of Dickinson College discusses the family ties that pushed Dred and Harriet to file freedom suits.

Dred Scott, a man of color, respectfully states to your honor, that he is claimed as a slave by one Irene Emerson, of the County of St. Louis, State of Missouri, widow of the late Dr. John Emerson, who at the time of his death was a surgeon in the United States army.

...he prays your honor to allow him to sue said Irene Emerson in said Court, in order to establish his right to freedom + he will pray be.

Dred x Scott

Harriet Scott filed her own freedom suit, knowing that only her freedom could ensure that of her daughters.

The Petition of Harriet, a woman of color states, that she is claimed as a slave by one Irene Emerson, of the County of St. Louis in the State of Missouri, widow of the late Dr. John Emerson, surgeon in the United States army, now dec’d.

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.

The Dred Scott Decision
On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court, a predominantly southern set of justices, ruled against Dred Scott. 

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.

Dissenting Voices
Of the nine justices, only Justice John McLean of Ohio and Justice Benjamin Curtis of Massachusetts wrote dissenting opinions.

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.

Missouri Compromise of 1820
Taney's pronouncement that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories caused enormous disagreement and uproar. This ruling overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as unconstitutional and judged the containment of slavery to be illegal. The 1820 compromise maintained the balance of slave and free states by admitting Missouri and Maine to the union, and prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30′.
National Reaction
Republicans denounced Taney's judgement as non-binding, arguing that if Dred Scott was denied a citizen's standing, the rest of the ruling was superfluous. Anti-slavery advocates rallied against the ruling for its clear pro-slavery bias and racist rhetoric.

Southern Democrats defended the Court's decision and widely circulated Taney's ruling as proof of the righteousness of slavery.

Manumission of the Scott Family
Two weeks after Dred Scott lost his case, Irene Emerson quietly transferred ownership of the Scott family to Taylor Blow, the son of his former owner. The Blow family had financially supported the Scott's legal case for several years and had turned against slavery since selling Dred Scott decades earlier. On May 26, 1857, Taylor Blow manumitted the entire Scott family.

Frederick Douglass, former slave and noted abolitionist, denounced the Taney court in a May 1857 speech in New York. Douglass's speech was widely circulated as a pamplet.

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—

Matthew Pinsker on the meaning and context of Lincoln's "House Divided" speech.

Presidential Election of 1860
The Dred Scott decision further exacerbated national tensions over slavery. The political cartoon shown features Dred Scott conducting a dance between Lincoln and an African American woman, and the three democratic candidates dancing with an American Indian, an Irish immigrant, and President Buchanan as a goat.

The Dred Scott decision and the dispute over slavery became a major talking point in the 1860 election, resulting in Lincoln's victory and the secession of the southern states.

The Resolution of the Dred Scott Case
The Dred Scott decision helped push the country toward civil war, highlighting the deep divisions between North and South. The Civil War devastated the country, but put an end to slavery. Post-war constitutional amendments overturned the Dred Scott decision and its major precedents.

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.

The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) ensured citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States."

The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) gave all male citizens the right to vote, regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

After being manumitted in 1857, Dred Scott worked as a porter in a St. Louis hotel until his death in September of 1858. Until her death in 1876, Harriet worked as a laundress in St. Louis and raised their daughters as free women.

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