Dred Scott Case

Next Monday, 6 March 2023

The Dred Scott Case, famously known as Dred Scott v. Sandford, was a key event in American history as it marks a decision of the U.S Supreme Court, on March 6, 1857, that ruled that black people did not have the right to American citizenship, whether free or enslaved. This meant that they did not have the same rights as other American citizens.

The case was brought to court by Dred Scott, a slave who had been taken by his owners from Missouri to free states, and sued for his freedom when back in Missouri.

This date marks an important historic event, but it is not a public holiday.


Dred Scott

Scott was born into slavery in 1799 and had Peter Blow as his owner, who he moved with to Alabama in 1818, and then to Missouri in 1830, both slave states.

After Blow’s death, he was purchased in 1832 by Dr. John Emerson, who took Scott to Illinois, a free state, then Winsconsin where slavery was outlawed by the Missouri Compromise. In there, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, and her ownership was transferred to Emerson.

In 1837 Dred and Harriet Scott were left behind in Winsconsin as hired out slaves. This was in violation of the Missouri Compromise and meant that Emerson was bringing slavery into a free state. Emerson then moved to Louisiana, a slave state, where he married Eliza Sanford. After the wedding, the Scotts joined their masters in Louisiana.

At this point, it is unclear why they didn’t sue for freedom when entering Louisiana, whose law stated that slaveholders forfeited their rights to their slaves if they brought them to free states for extended periods.

After Emerson’s death in 1843, his wife inherited the Scotts as her property and continued to lease them as hired slaves. In 1846 Dred Scott tried to buy his and his family’s freedom but was refused, and he then decided to take legal action.

Legal Battle

With legal and financial help from their church, abolitionists, and Charlotte Blow, Peter Blow’s daughter, the Scotts filed lawsuits for their freedom in 1846, in the St. Louis circuit. These separate lawsuits were based on two statues: one allowed black people to sue for wrongful enslavement, and the other said that nay slaved taken to free territory automatically became free and could not be re-enslaved.

Victory seemed to be a give, as the Missouri courts had heard similar cases, and the Scotts had been taken to and lived in free states. However, due to a wrong testimony given by a witness, the court ruled against them in 1847, granting them a retrial.

In 1850, the case was brought to the Supreme Court of Missouri, where the correct witness was brought in, confirming that she had leased the Scotts from Emerson. The jury decided to grant the Scotts their freedom. However, Emerson appealed and, in 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision of 1850, stating that as the Scotts had not sued for freedom while in a free state, they were legally still enslaved.

At this point, Emerson claimed to have transferred the Scotts’ ownership to her brother, John Sanford, who Dred Scott filed a federal lawsuit against in 1853. In 1854 at the Dred Scott v. Sanford trial the court relied on Missouri law to settle the lawsuit, a law which had held that Scott should remain a slave. Thus, the ruling was in favor of Sanford.

Dred Scott v. Sandford

After this ruling, Dred Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which registered the case as Dred Scott v. Sandford. By this time, Scott had garnered support from famous abolitionists and politicians. At this trial, it was established that John Sanford did not legally own the Scotts, and was used as a front and allowed himself to be sued and represented by pro-slavery advocates in court, although it is unclear why.

The case was presided over by Justice Roger Taney, who did not support slavery but did support state rights. Thus, his ruling for the case was that black people, freed or enslaved, had no rights as American citizens, and therefore could not sue in federal court. He also argued that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and Congress had no right to prevent the spread of slavery.

On March 6, 1857, the court ruled against Dred Scott in a 7-2 decision.

Dred Scott is granted his freedom

After the US supreme court decision, Eliza Emerson had married an abolitionist, who upon discovering his wife was the owner of a family of slaves sold Scott and his family to Taylor Blow, son of Peter Blow. Taylor then freed the Scott family in May of 1857.

Consequences of the case

The Supreme Court's decision caused a great revolt among abolitionists, who thought the ruling an attempt to stop the debate on slavery. This deepened the divide between North and South on matters of slavery and resulted in the secession of Southern states that led to the American Civil War.

Dred Scott Case
Dred Scott Case

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