Dred Scott portrait

On November 2, 1853, American slave Dred Scott filed suit in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Missouri seeking his freedom. The suit named John Sanford as the defendant in the case, but a clerical error in the filing procedure recorded the suit as Scott v. Sandford. On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court denied Scott’s request for freedom. [Wikimedia Commons]

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Dred Scott v. Sandford was a historic ruling by the United States Supreme Court that declared that people of African descent, were not citizens of the United States, and that Congress had no Constitutional authority to regulate slavery in U.S. territories.

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Background

The U.S. Constitution and Slavery

When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming “a more perfect Union.” In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition as the nation expanded west in the coming decades.

 The Northwest Ordinance

At the same time delegates to the Constitutional Convention were creating plans for a new government, representatives to the Congress of the existing government, established under the Articles of Confederation, were meeting in New York. On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress enacted “An Ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio,” which stipulated “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory. . . ” That legislation, more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance, had the effect of establishing the Ohio River as the border separating free and slave states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. For the next three decades, that boundary forestalled major sectional disputes over slavery.

 The Louisiana Purchase

Sectional quarrels over slavery intensified after the United States purchased 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase created new challenges for the federal government. Besides land ownership issues regarding the native inhabitants, Congress eventually had to address the question of the expansion of slavery in the new territory.

 The Missouri Compromise

The first test of federal authority to regulate slavery in the territory came in 1818 when the residents of Missouri petitioned Congress for statehood. Roughly 8,000 to 10,000 slaves lived in the territory at the time. Southerners expected Congress to admit Missouri as a slave state, but New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced an amendment to the Missouri statehood measure that would gradually end slavery in the new state. The Tallmadge Amendment started a year of bitter debate in both houses of Congress. Legislators finally reached a compromise in 1820, admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. Wishing to avoid similar conflicts, Congress also prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Territory, north of the southern border of Missouri (36°30′ north latitude).

 The Mexican-American War

Although not a perfect solution in the minds of all parties (especially abolitionists), the Missouri Compromise muffled the debate over the extension of slavery in the United States for over three decades. Things changed in 1846 when the U. S. started a war with Mexico that vastly expanded American territorial possessions in the West.

The Wilmot Proviso

Three months after the war began, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot inserted a “proviso” into an appropriations bill sponsored by President James K. Polk that proposed ending hostilities by purchasing Mexican territory. Wilmot’s proviso stipulated that, in any land acquired from Mexico, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime . . . ” The measure passed in the House, but Southerners defeated it in the Senate. Wilmot reintroduced the proviso again in 1847, with the same results. In 1848, he unsuccessfully attempted to have it inserted into the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. If the Wilmot Proviso re-energized simmering sectional disagreements over the extension of slavery, the results of the Mexican-American War once again brought the issue to a boil.

 The Compromise of 1850

The main source of sectional discord over slavery transformed from abstract to concrete in 1848 when Mexico ceded vast tracts of land to the United States, including most of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, plus all of present-day California, Nevada, and Utah. The debate over the future of slavery in those territories widened the schism between Northern and Southern views. As the nation inched toward disunion, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of measures, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850. Enacted by Congress as separate bills, the Compromise of 1850 attempted to settle the sectional differences dividing the nation by:

  1.  Admitting California to the Union as a free state,
  2.  Authorizing the territorial legislatures of New Mexico and Utah to determine the status of slavery within their borders,
  3. Settling the Texas boundary dispute in favor of the United States, in exchange for federal assumption of $10 million of Texas debt,
  4. Abolishing the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia, and
  5. Enacting a more stringent fugitive slave law to help ensure the return of runaway slaves.

Of all the components of the Compromise of 1850, many Northerners found the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Act the most odious. They objected to the law for several reasons. 

  • The terms of the law were much harsher and more unfair to suspected runaway slaves
  • The new law impinged upon the freedom of Northerners by requiring them to take part in the pursuit and apprehension of suspected runaways.
  • The law expanded federal powers at the expense of state and local authority

Hostility towards the act in the North magnified the scope and depth of anti-slavery sentiment outside of the South. In reaction, Southerners became further convinced of their Northern neighbors’ disregard for their property rights.

Despite objections to the Fugitive Slave Act, moderates across the country celebrated the Missouri Compromise, believing that it had saved the Union. President Fillmore proclaimed a “final settlement” to the sectional differences that plagued the nation. Extremists on both sides of the debate were not so easily convinced. Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed “the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

Chase was correct. While the nation struggled with the slavery issue, settlers and entrepreneurs clamored to populate the rest of the Louisiana Purchase. “Kansas Fever” raged. Before white settlers could inhabit the area on a large scale, however, they needed to organize a territorial government to displace the native population, survey the land, and enact regulations for land ownership.

Congress considered petitions to establish a territory west of the Missouri River as early as 1851 but took no action on the proposals. Fearful of admitting more free states to the Union, Southerners in the Senate refused to support the measures if they banned slavery from the territory as required by the Missouri Compromise.

Eager to see the new territory established, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, chairman of the Committee on Territories, introduced legislation that orchestrated a way to appease his southern colleagues. Douglas proposed the organization of two territories separated at the 40th parallel: Nebraska to the north and Kansas to the south. The new measure also stipulated that the section of the Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase was “inoperative and void” because it had been “superseded” by the popular sovereignty provisions of the Compromise of 1850. Although hotly debated, the Senate voted to approve the Kansas-Nebraska Act, as submitted by Douglas, on March 4, 1854. The House followed suit on May 22, and President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854.

Douglas believed that implementing popular sovereignty would bring the sectional dispute over the extension of slavery to an end. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act kindled the opposite reaction. Political bickering turned into bloodshed in Kansas as ruffians on both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory to influence the vote over slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also sped up a complete realignment of the political landscape in the United States. The Democratic Party lost most of its support among Northerners and evolved to become the face of pro-slavery forces in the South. The Whig Party ceased to exist in the South and began crumbling in the North. Gradually, an amalgam of disaffected Democrats, abolitionists, and Free Soilers coalesced as the new Republican Party. The turmoil caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act spawned a political landscape that divided the nation almost exclusively along sectional lines.

 Dred Scott v. Sandford

While Congress struggled to find a political solution to the slavery controversy dividing the nation, some began looking to the judicial system for deliverance. Unbeknownst to the political leaders of the time, events involving a common slave named Dred Scott three decades earlier that eventually compelled the United States Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia at the dawn of the 19th Century. He moved with his owner, Peter Blow, to Alabama and then settled in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1830. Blow died at St. Louis in 1832. Sometime between 1831 and 1833, Blow or his heirs sold Scott to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks, just south of St. Louis. On December 1, 1833, Emerson took Scott to Illinois (where the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery) when the army transferred him to Fort Armstrong. In May 1836, Emerson took Scott with him when the army reassigned to Fort Snelling, in the Wisconsin Territory (where the Missouri Compromise of 1820 banned slavery). While at Fort Snelling, Emerson allowed Scott to marry Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by Major Lawrence Taliaferro, Indian Agent for the territory. Shortly thereafter, Emerson acquired ownership of Robinson.

In 1837, Emerson left the Scotts in Wisconsin when the Army transferred him back to Jefferson Barracks and then to Fort Jesup, Louisiana. While in Louisiana, Emerson married Eliza Irene Sanford, the daughter of a Missouri slaveholder, on February 6, 1838. Two months later, Emerson sent for the Scotts to join him and his bride in Louisiana. In September, the Emersons and the Scotts briefly returned to St. Louis and then traveled back to Fort Snelling, where they all lived for the next year and a half, until May 1840.

On May 29, 1840, the army sent Emerson to Florida to take part in the Second Seminole War. Emerson left his wife and slaves in St. Louis while he was away. During Emerson’s absence, his wife hired out the Scotts. Emerson left the army in August 1842 and entered private practice, first in St. Louis and then at Davenport, Iowa, in 1843. On December 29 of that year, Emerson died, leaving the Scotts to his wife. Irene Emerson returned to St. Louis to live with her father. The Scotts reportedly tried to purchase their freedom after Emerson’s death, but Mrs. Emerson refused their offer. Instead, she again hired out the Scotts.

Missouri State Supreme Court Case

After Irene Emerson rebuffed their offer, Dred and Harriet Scott filed identical petitions with the St. Louis Circuit Court, on April 6, 1846, seeking their freedom on the grounds that they had lived for long periods of time in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin. They based their suit on an 1824 Missouri statute that enabled anyone held wrongfully in slavery to sue for their freedom.

The Scotts had strong legal precedent on their side. Soon after the 1824 enactment of the Missouri law, the state supreme court ruled in the case of Winny v Whiteside that if a slave owner took a slave to free territory and established residence there, the slave was then free, even if the slave returned to Missouri. That ruling established the judicial standard in Missouri of “once free, always free.” In 1834, the state supreme court further substantiated the Scotts’ future claims in the case of Rachel v. Walker when it held that “if an officer of the United States Army takes a slave to a territory where slavery is prohibited, he forfeits his property.”

The Scotts’ case came to trial on June 30, 1847, with Judge Alexander Hamilton presiding. Hamilton denied the Scotts’ petition because of a legal technicality regarding the testimony of a witness during the trial. However, the judge ruled that the Scotts were entitled to a new trial. Emerson’s lawyers disagreed and filed suit with the Missouri Supreme Court to prevent a second hearing. The Supreme Court sided with the Scotts and on June 30, 1848, by unanimous decision, and approved a second trial. Unfortunately for the Scotts, the wheels of justice turned slowly and the new trial did not begin until early 1850. Once again, Judge Hamilton presided. On January 12, the jury found in favor of the Scotts and ruled them free. Judge Hamilton denied Emerson’s request for a third hearing, so her attorneys filed an appeal with the Missouri Supreme Court.

To simplify future proceedings, attorneys for both sides agreed that only Dred Scott’s case would advance to the state supreme court and that the court’s decision would also apply to Harriet Scott’s petition. Considering the precedents already established by the Missouri Supreme Court, Scott’s case looked solid. However, the political climate had changed in Missouri since the high court decided the cases of Winny v Whiteside and Rachel v. Walker. Thirty years of legalized bondage had engendered much stronger pro-slavery sentiment in Missouri. In a state that previously championed the “once free, always free” doctrine, only one of twenty-five freedom suits filed in the St. Louis Circuit Court resulted in freedom between 1844 and 1846. Equally foreboding for Scott was the fact that two of the three justices on the Missouri Supreme Court were supporters of slavery. Not surprisingly, in a two-to-one decision, the high court reversed the lower court’s ruling on March 22, 1852, and the Scotts remained slaves.

Federal Court Case

Having run out of options in the Missouri judicial system, Scott’s attorneys searched for grounds to justify an appeal to the federal courts. A change in the ownership of the Scott family provided the opportunity they were seeking. By 1853, Irene Emerson’s brother, John Sanford, was registered as the owner of the Scott family. Emerson had moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and married Dr. Calvin C. Chaffee in 1850. Chaffee openly opposed slavery and did not know that his wife was a slaveowner. It is unclear if the state recognized Sanford as the owner of the Scotts because he was the executor of Dr. Emerson’s estate, or if Irene Emerson sold the Scotts to her brother because of her new husband’s abolitionist convictions, or if she had Sanford act on her behalf to maintain her secret. Whatever the case, the fact that Sanford was a New York resident provided Scott’s attorneys with grounds to file their suit in federal court because the parties in the litigation lived in different states.

On November 2, 1853, Dred Scott filed suit in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Missouri. The suit named John Sanford as the defendant in the case, but a clerical error in the filing procedure recorded the suit as Scott v. Sandford. When the suit went to trial in 1854, Sanford’s attorneys challenged the federal court’s jurisdiction on the grounds Scott was not a U.S. citizen because he was a “negro of African descent.” The presiding judge, Robert W. Wells, disagreed and allowed the proceedings to continue. During the trial, Sanford’s attorneys argued that even if Scott had gained his freedom while living in free territories, he once again became a slave when he voluntarily returned to Missouri. The jury agreed with the defense’s reasoning and found in favor of Sanford. Scott’s attorney, Hugh Garland, then filed a petition to have the case heard by the United States Supreme Court during the December 1854 term.

United States Supreme Court Case

The Supreme Court agreed to review the case but did not hear arguments until February 1856. By that time, the suit had become a cause célèbre. Anti-slavery factions arranged for high-profile attorneys Montgomery Blair and George T. Curtis to represent Scott. Reverdy Johnson, a nationally prominent constitutional lawyer, and Henry S. Geyer, a sitting U.S. Senator from Missouri, argued the case for Sanford at no charge.

The suit took on increased political importance when Sanford’s attorneys challenged the constitutional authority of Congress to regulate slavery in U.S. territories. After hearing oral arguments in May, the court decided that it would consider the case in December. Concerns about forcing presidential candidates in the November election of 1856 to take a stand on whatever decision the court rendered may have prompted the delay.

New arguments in the case began on December 15, 1856. When the court met to discuss the case on February 14, 1857, they chose Justice Samuel Nelson to write the majority opinion, which ruled in favor of Sanford but did not address the more volatile issues of Negro citizenship and the constitutionality of Congressional regulation of slavery in the territories.

Apparently, Nelson’s written opinion did not go far enough to satisfy the views of the majority of justices, five of whom were from slaveholding families, and seven of whom received their appointments from Southern presidents. The court rejected Nelson’s decision. Instead, eight of the nine justices wrote separate opinions. On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney read his judgment, which a majority of the justices had adopted as the official opinion of the court.

Justice Taney’s Decision

Taney agreed with Sanford’s attorneys that the law did not entitle Scott to bring suit in federal court because neither he nor anyone else of African descent, whether slaves or freedmen, were citizens of the United States. In Taney’s words,

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.

Taney did not stop there. He declared that Congressional attempts to regulate slavery in U.S. territories were unconstitutional. Taney reasoned that Congress could not deprive white inhabitants of the territories of their Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty, or property (including their slaves) without due process of law, any more than it could deny citizens of their First Amendment right to free speech. Although Taney specifically targeted the Missouri Compromise of 1820, his ruling also had the effect of nullifying the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Aftermath

The court’s ruling had major repercussions on the sectional dispute over slavery that was dividing the nation. While Southerners hailed the decision, Northerners denounced Taney and the court. The pro-slavery decision galvanized anti-slavery sentiment in the North and strengthened the emerging Republican Party. Northerners who previously viewed slavery as a peculiar institution of the South were aroused by speculation that if slaveowners could not be denied of their Fifth Amendment rights in the territories, then what was to stop them from bringing their human “property” to the North. Far from resolving the sectional differences dividing the North and South, the Dred Scott decision widened the schism even more, inching the nation closer to civil war.

Eleven weeks after Taney read his decision, the Scotts were back in court under happier circumstances. Possibly succumbing to mounting political pressure brought to bear on her husband, Irene Chaffee transferred ownership of the Scotts back to the Blow family, which had financially supported Dred Scott’s trek through the Missouri court system. The new owners thereupon granted the Scotts their freedom. The Scotts’ journey came full circle on May 26, 1857, when Judge Alexander Hamilton approved the Scotts’ manumission papers in the St. Louis Circuit Court.

Dred Scott lived less than a year and a half as a free man. He died on September 17, 1858, of tuberculosis. Harriet Scott died eighteen years later on June 17, 1876.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Dred Scott v. Sandford
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date November 29, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 18, 2021
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