The Case of Dred Scott

It was an unheard-of thing in 1847 for a slave to go to Court to obtain his freedom, and the case made waves throughout the United States.
In 1846, placing a dubious faith in the U.S. Legal System, a man called Dred Scott went to Court to seek what he thought was properly due to himself and his family as citizens of the United States - Freedom.

For the next ten years he tirelessly went from Court to Court, and in the end, instead of receiving even a modicum of justice, he was informed by a panel of nine Supreme Court Judges that he had no right to be presenting his case in Court in the first place. The Judges were white and some of them were slave-holders. Dred Scott was an African-American Slave.

Dred Scott began his life in 1800 in Virginia, and grew up working as a farm laborer and general handyman. Then known as Sam, he was the property of a man called Peter Blow with whom he went West, first to Alabama and then later to Missouri. They settled in St. Louis in 1830. Two years later Peter Blow died and Dred Scott was sold to an Army Doctor, Dr. John Emerson. He accompanied him to the Free States of Illinois and Wisconsin, where Slavery was prohibited and where the doctor remained posted for around two and half years each. Certainly the sojourn was enough for Dred Scott to come to appreciate the differences between slavery and freedom. During this time he also received permission to marry Harriet Robinson, a slave belonging to a local Judge, who very generously transferred her ownership over to John Emerson. The latter, leaving his married slave couple behind in Wisconsin, moved to St. Louis and from there to Louisiana. Here, he too married and then summoned his slaves to join him.

Since Dred Scott had lived in the free states for a quite a number of years, he was eligible to claim freedom for both himself and his new family. However he was not so legally aware then and moreover had a pretty good relationship with John Emerson. So, on receiving his summons, he and his family traveled of their own volition from the free state of Wisconsin to the slave state of Louisiana. In 1943, Emerson died and his widow loaned Dred Scott and his family to her brother John Sanford. He, unfortunately, was a far cry from John Emerson, being a very brutal personality who constantly ill-treated Dred Scott, his wife, and their children. Finally, unable to withstand any more, Dred Scott asked Mrs. Emerson to set them free. He was even willing to pay her $300 for their freedom. However she wasn't interested and refused.

Meanwhile the Abolitionist Movement was gaining momentum in America. Dred Scott came in contact with some of these people and they decided to help him. With their support and advise, Dred Scott filed his case in the Circuit Court in Missouri in 1847. It was an unheard-of thing in those days for a slave to go to Court to obtain his freedom, and the case made waves throughout the United States.

Dred Scott's argument was that since he has lived for many years as a free man in the Free States, where he had also married, he and his family were free people and could no longer be considered as slaves.

The Case finally reached the Supreme Court. The matter over which they pondered was not whether Dred Scott should be freed or not, but whether the Court had the jurisdiction to try the case. Was Dred Scott, a slave with no rights, entitled to a hearing? Could he be accorded the same privileges accorded to the Citizens of the United States in the Constitution? Could he be considered a slave? These questions seemed to come a little late in the day, considering that the man had been making Court rounds for the past ten years, but still they overshadowed what was moot.

The Court said - "The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement [people of African ancestry] compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? 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."

"Upon the whole, therefore, it is the judgment of this court, that it appears by the record before us that the plaintiff in error is not a citizen of Missouri, in the sense in which that word is used in the Constitution; and that the Circuit Court of the United States, for that reason, had no jurisdiction in the case, and could give no judgment in it. Its judgment for the defendant must, consequently, be reversed, and a mandate issued, directing the suit to be dismissed for want of jurisdiction."

Dred Scott, as an African-American Slave, was not a citizen of the United States and nor could he ever become one. Therefore he had no rights whatsoever and was in no position to be suing anybody in Court.

The Court also ruled that the Government had no right to prohibit Slavery anywhere. It was totally ridiculous to assume that because a slave had been taken from a slave state into a free state, he or she became eligible to be free. Slaves after all were property. Was one to lose one's property just because one moved from this State to that? It was inconceivable. No, said the Court, the Government had no right to impinge on matters of private property. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was thus declared unconstitutional.

The Court decision was read in March 1857. It was decided by seven of the nine judges, but the name of Chief Justice Robert B. Taney has become more widely known in connection with the Dred Scott Case. A staunch anti-abolitionist, he was the one that wrote the 'majority opinion' that was finally read out in Court.

The Court verdict against Dred Scott was of course widely welcomed by the Southern States that supported Slavery. In the North, where they suspected the South of attempting to get slavery legalized all over the United States, there was widespread condemnation. Abraham Lincoln, in particular, railed against the Court decision, and at the Illinois Republican convention in Springfield on June 16, 1858, he made a scathing speech in reference to it, which came to be famously known as the "House Divided" speech. He said - "What Dred Scott's master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free state."

The Dred Scott Case thus fueled the growing differences between the Free States of the North and the Slave States of the South. Ultimately these differences led to the outbreak of the Civil War and the eventual end of Slavery in America. As such the Dred Scott Case is a landmark case in history.

Unfortunately it did not help the man himself. After ten years he had nothing to look forward to except perpetual slavery for himself and his loved ones. His white friends - the children of his first master Peter Blow, who had grown up with him and had supported and helped pay his legal fees in this case - stepped in and bought him and his family from John Sanford and then set them free. That must not have been much of a consolation for this proud, strong man. He died very soon afterwards.
By Sonal Panse
Published: 6/16/2004
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