Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia. He spent his life as a slave and was never able to read or write. I chose to look at this timeline of events because I think it is important to look at not only at his background, but also what was going on in the country at the time of his pursuit for freedom.
1799- Dred Scott born in Virginia as a slave of the Peter Blow family
1803- US purchases LA from France, undefined territory west of Mississippi
1804- US takes possession of modern day Missouri
1820- Large debate- Missouri declared slave state by Congress. Sparks disagreement of expansion of slavery. à Missouri Compromise- Missouri enters as slave state with other free state of Maine; no territories above 36o 30’ latitude can enter the union as slave state. Arkansas slave state, Iowa and Illinois free states.
1830- Blow family moves to St. Louis, sell Scott to Emerson (military surgeon). Over next 12 years Scott goes with Emerson to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where Congress prohibited slavery under the rules of the Missouri Compromise. Scott marries Harriet Robinson (also slave) has two children. Slaveholder's express particular opposition to legal precedents that permit slaves to demand their own freedom after being transported to places (whether other states or foreign countries) that prohibit slavery.
1842- Scott family and Emerson (and his wife) return to St Louis
1843- Emerson dies, Mrs Emerson hires Dred, Harriet, and two children to work for other families in St Louis
1846- Scott’s sue Mrs Emerson for their freedom
1847- court rules in favor of Mrs Emerson, allowing Scotts’ to refile suit
1850- jury in second trial decides Scotts’ deserve to be free because of their many years of residence is non-slave territories
1852- Mrs Emerson doesn’t want to lose such valuable property, so she appeals the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. Lawyers decide that they will handle this as only Dred, with the decision applied equally to Harriet. Supreme Court overrules court decision and sends Scott back to slavery
1853-1854- Lawyers who represented Scott (opposed slavery), file suit in US Federal court. Mrs Emerson’s brother Sanford, is defendant (has assumed responsibility for Emerson’s estate). “As a New York resident and technically beyond the jurisdiction of the state court, Scott's lawyers can only file a suit against Sanford in the federal judicial system. Again the court rules against Scott.”
1856-1857- “Scott and his lawyers appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Scott v. Sanford the Court states that Scott should remain a slave, that as a slave he is not a citizen of the U.S. and thus not eligible to bring suit in a federal court, and that as a slave he is personal property and thus has never been free. The court further declares unconstitutional the provision in the Missouri Compromise that permitted Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories. In fact, the compromise is already under assault as a coalition of political leaders-some slaveholders, others westerners who resent the federal government's ability to dictate the terms of statehood-claim that territorial residents should be able to determine on what terms they enter the union. The decision in Scott v. Sanford greatly alarms the antislavery movement and intensifies the growing division of opinion within the United State. The newly-formed Republican Party, which opposes the expansion of slavery, vigorously criticizes the decision and the court.”
1857- Mrs Emerson remarries a man who opposes slavery; she returns Dred and his family to the Blow family, Blows give Scott’s their freedom
1858- Dred Scott dies of tuberculosis, buried in St Louis Wesleyan Cemetery.
1860- Abraham Lincoln elected president. South Carolina secedes from Union, Civil war begins.
“In 1867, Wesleyan cemetery closed and the bodies were disinterred and re-buried at other sites. Dred Scott's body was moved to an unmarked grave in Section 1, Lot No. 177, Calvary Cemetery, in north St. Louis County.”
In 1957 a marker was placed on Dred Scott's grave which reads:
"DRED SCOTT BORN ABOUT 1799 DIED SEPT. 17, 1858 DRED SCOTT SUBJECT OF THE DECISION OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES IN 1857 WHICH DENIED CITIZENSHIP TO THE NEGRO, VOIDED THE MISSOURI COMPROMISE ACT, BECAME ONE OF THE EVENTS THAT RESULTED IN THE CIVIL WAR"
“The defendant pleaded in abatement to the jurisdiction of the court, that the plaintiff was not a citizen of the State of Missouri, as alleged in his declaration, being a negro of African descent, whose ancestors were of pure African blood and who were brought into this country and sold as slaves.”
-Thought this was interesting, but typical also, because Scott is not even considered a citizen in Missouri, he and his family are simply pieces of property because they are “of African descent.”
“The question before us is whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement 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.”
-This quote is fairly early Chief Justice Taney’s decision, but it seems as though his decision is already made!
“It is very clear, therefore, that no State can, by any act or law of its own, passed since the adoption of the Constitution, introduce a new member into the political community created by the Constitution of the United States.”
-Again, it is as if the Chief Justice could have just said this and then not allowed Scott his freedom or citizenship. But, I am skeptical as to the validity of this assertion.
“In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.”
-It baffles me as to how they read the Declaration of Independence and came to these conclusions. When it states, “all men are created equal,” I just don’t understand how that can mean “all men except blacks.”
“And, upon a full and careful consideration of the subject, the court is of opinion, that, upon the facts stated in the plea in abatement, Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to sue in its courts, and consequently that the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction of the case, and that the judgment on the plea in abatement is erroneous.”
-This is the decision that the judge came to, and I just find it interesting as to his choice of words. When he describes the process as “full and careful consideration,” I’d have to argue that this decision was based on a complete lack of consideration.
"The Petition to Sue for Freedom the first step in the legal process governed by the Missouri statutes. The circuit court granted permission to sue when several conditions, including the posting of bonds, were met.
Dred Scott, like most slaves, was not allowed to learn to read or write and was thus unable to sign his name to the petition for freedom. He made his mark with an "X"."
Why and how could the slaves sign a petition if they did not know what it said since they can not read or write?
What is the 1825 law? (Scott sued under it)
Examining the Decision
"No one of that race had ever migrated to the United States voluntarily; all of them had been brought here as articles of merchandise. The number that had been emancipated at that time were but few in comparison with those held in slavery, and they were identified in the public mind with the race to which they belonged, and regarded as a part of the slave population rather than the free. It is obvious that they were not [p412] even in the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they were conferring special rights and privileges upon the citizens of a State in every other part of the Union."
- I think that this passage is interesting because it shows how white people thought that African Americans were not even considered while the Constituion was made. It seemed like the speaker did not see what the problem was because the African Americans did not come to the United States voluntarily so they should not be considered in the Constitution.
"It is impossible, it would seem, to believe that the great men of the slaveholding States, who took so large a share in framing the Constitution of the United States and exercised so much influence in procuring its adoption, could have been so forgetful or regardless of their own safety and the safety of those who trusted and confided in them"
- I think that this passage is showing how the speaker thinks the men that wrote the Constitution put a lot of time in effor into it. This means that they would not make a mistake while writing it.
Examining the Controversy
-Opinions of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Case
Chief Justice Taney delivers the decision of the Dred Scott case and states that Scott is not a citizen and was not “manumitted by being taken by his master when a slave into the then Territory of Illinois, and that the Missouri Compromise was an act unconstitutionally passed by Congress”. Justice Nelson disagreed with this decision. Also, five Judges (Taney, Campbell, Catron, Wayne and Daniel) all agree with the constitutional point about the Missouri Compromise. Justices Nelson and Grier say that the Missouri decisions helped them to join the majority of opinion. Most of the members of the Supreme Court at that time were involved in the Slave Extension party and five of the Judges were also slaveholders.
-The Decision in the Case of Dred Scott
The paper believes that the decision that was made over the Dred Scott case was “a fitting crown to the aborted tyranny which has just submerged with Pierce”. They believe that Pierce should have done something and helped Scott win his case. The paper states that the “Supreme Court has aimed a blow at State Sovereignty which is baser and more iniquitous than anything we had before conceived of”. They believe that the Court has over stepped its boundaries and thrown away reasoning.
This paper has decided to treat the decision of the Scott case as a nullity, they do not believe that it is a law and does not have any binding force within the government. The paper states that; “Look at the facts in the case. Dred Scott, an alleged Missouri slave, brings a suit against his claimant, for his freedom, upon the ground that his master, having voluntarily removed him from Missouri on to free soil, he thereby became free. The Supreme Court decide that Dred Scott is not a citizen of Missouri or of the United States, and therefore was not entitled to bring a suit in that Court; hence they dismiss his suit for want of jurisdiction. That, then, was the only point for them to decide, and that decided, there was an end of the case. The suit fell because the party bringing it had no rights in that Court”. They believe that the Court did not have the power to make this decision and that it was out of their jurisdiction. The paper gives examples of other cases where what the Court said was proven to be wrong. For example “Prior to the great Bank struggle of 1832, the U. S. Supreme Court had decided a National Bank to be constitutional. Gen. Jackson and the Democratic party set this decision aside, and pronounced the Bank unconstitutional. Gen. Jackson utterly refused to be guided in his political opinions by the Supreme Court. He had sworn to support the Constitution, he said, as he understood it, and not as the Supreme Court understood it”.
-Important Decision of the Supreme Court of the US on the Slavery Question
“The Court of last resort, which has jurisdiction over questions appertaining to the powers of the Federal Government, decided that Congress has no power under the Constitution to legislate upon slavery in the Territories, and that all such legislation as the so-called Missouri Compromise, which undertook to do so, is null and void”. This Cincinnati paper also agrees that the Court did not have the power or jurisdiction to make this decision about the Dred Scott case and how he is not a legal citizen of the US.
-The Issue Forced Upon US
“The three hundred and forty-seven thousand five hundred and twenty-five Slaveholders in the Republic, accomplished day before yesterday a great success -- as shallow men estimate success. They converted the Supreme Court of Law and Equity of the United States of America into a propagandist of human Slavery”. This paper accuses the Republican party of taking over the Supreme Court and making the whole Court into pro-slavery. They believe that this case will start a huge debate and call upon the Republicans to “All who love Republican institutions and who hate Aristocracy, compact yourselves together for the struggle which threatens your liberty and will test your manhood”!
-Court and Constitution
“Judge Taney requests the American people to believe that the framers of the Constitution did not know their own minds. For the same Statesmen who drew up the Constitution, (which he says forbids Congress to prohibit Slavery in the Territories,) adopted the Ordinance of '87, which prohibited it in all the Territories we then had. The Ordinance was passed in July, 1787 -- the Constitution was framed in September of the same year. The same States and the same men ratified both. And one of the first acts of the first Congress under the Constitution was to reaffirm the Ordinance, and to again prohibit Slavery! Which are the best interpreters of the Constitution, the opinions of Mr. Chief Justice Taney, or the ACTS of Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Monroe, Adams, and Washington? They created the Constitution, and the Constitution created Chief Justice Taney -- the clay which now affects to despise the skill of the Potter”.
-Half a Million Citizens Disfranchised
“Many things in the monstrous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, shock the moral sense of the public. But the barbarism of the blow which annihilates the citizenship of all the Free colored people in the United States, has fallen with a stunning force on all who have been taught that justice is obligatory on man, and that Christianity is the social law of Humanity. The half million of men and women paralysed by the atheistic logic of the decision of the case of Dred Scott, which disfranchises them on the soil on which they were born, will be to all free and uncorrupted souls a complete denial of the bad law and worse conscience, with which the Supreme Court has pronounced its departure from Republicanism and its entrance into Slavery”.
-Supreme Court vs. The Abolitionists
Abolitionists has “ has heretofore been the peculiar policy -- at least of those of the schools more moderate than the maligners of Washington and repudiators of the Bible -- to claim for the federal government the right of prescribing the bounds of slavery, prohibiting its extension, and all other latitudinarian legislation on the subject, not in conflict with the most liberal construction of the Constitution”. This destroys the foundations of which we have waged war on the South. They predict that the Abolition party will not be divided in the future but instead will all have the same priorities.
-The Past and the Future
“The Supreme Court of the United States, in a recent case, has, by a decision of seven to two of the Judges, established as law what our Southern statesmen have been repeating daily for many years on the floors of Congress, that the whole action of this Government on the subject of slavery, for more than a quarter of a century, from the initiation of the Missouri Restriction in 1822, to the California Compromise in 1850, has been all beyond the limits of the Constitution; was without justifiable authority; and that the whole mass should be now proclaimed null and void, and that slavery is guaranteed by the constitutional compact”. This decision must be foremost in the mind of those Mason and Dixon’s line, who have been preaching bout peace and self-sacrifice, because they must comptemplate what this means to them. “ Now, however, we may congratulate ourselves that the highest tribunal has at last interposed and given its sanction to principles that recognize distinctly the equality of the States, and condemn the interference of the Federal Government with affairs that are peculiarly under their jurisdiction, and for interfering with which there is no warrant in our common Constitution, we cannot help feeling a sense of mortification that there has been so little of consistent union, on the part of the South, in the maintenance of principles on which depend absolutely her power, her industrial prosperity, and even her very existence”.
Examining the case:
Although Dred Scott is the most famous slave suing for freedom in Missouri, he was not the first. He sued for his freedom because he had moved to Illinois, a Free State where he was free and then back to Missouri where he was told he had to return as a slave.
Background to Scott's case and other so-called freedom cases:
- "Once free, always free" was a doctrine upheld by Missouri courts in determining slave freedom suits.
- “Dred Scott, like most slaves, was not allowed to learn to read or write and was thus unable to sign his name to the petition for freedom. He made his mark with an "X".”
- “Slaves could sue under the 1807 territorial statute (they could)… petition the appropriate court for permission to sue as a poor person if s/he had evidence of wrongful enslavement.”
- “St. Louis produced a relatively large number of freedom suits in the early 19th century (1824-1844) for a city with a fairly small African-American population…Slaves had easy access to information and legal advice in the city and a high level of autonomy and mobility”
- “The Missouri Supreme Court decision of Winny v. Whitesides (1824) established Missouri's judicial criteria for eligibility for freedom and set an important and original precedent for Missouri courts. If a slave owner took a slave to Illinois and set up residence there, the slave would be free under the terms of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance even if the slave were returned to slave territory”
- “Dred and Harriet Scott were among the last people to petition for freedom in St. Louis (1846). They won the case in the lower court, but their owner appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the owner in 1852.” - “The 1852 decision ended the ability of slaves in Missouri to sue for freedom based on residence in a free state.”
Detailed discussion of the Dred Scott Case:
-In giving a general background about the suits: “Individually, and as a whole, these cases demonstrate the determination of the enslaved to free themselves.”
- Winny v. Phebe Whitesides: “[T]he first freedom suit appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. It established the precedent of freeing slaves who had resided in a free territory or state. Citing the 1807 territorial statute that allowed any person held in slavery to petition the court to sue for their freedom as a poor person, Winny filed a petition in 1819 charging Whitesides with trespass, assault and battery, and false imprisonment. Winny declared that because Whitesides had taken her and her family from North Carolina into Illinois before coming to St. Louis, she should be free. On February 13, 1822, a jury agreed and declared Winny and her offspring free persons. The defendant appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict, based on the terms of the Northwest Ordinance.”
- Josephine LaCourse: “Under Missouri law, minor children could also file petitions for freedom… [His] mother Julia sued owner George Mitchell as her daughter's "next friend." In law, a "next friend" - a free adult - acted for the minor's benefit while the case was pending. The basis of this 1835 suit was prior residence in free territory and upon Josephine LaCourse's birth in "the French Village of St. Clair," Illinois, in 1826.”
- Dred Scott and his wife Harriet: “The most well known and the freedom suit with the greatest impact on U. S. history, culture, and society was the one filed in St. Louis Circuit Court by Dred Scott and his wife Harriet, in 1846.” Although the St. Louis court initially granted freedom to the Scotts, a series of appeals by both parties brought the case before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1857. The federal court's decision to uphold the State Supreme Court's ruling reasoned that the Scotts were and should remain slaves because the United States Constitution did not recognize slaves as citizens. The Dred Scott decision fueled the ongoing debate over slavery and is among the sequence of significant events that led to the Civil War.”
Slaves could sue under the 1807 territorial statute (1824 state law) that allowed any person held in bondage to petition the appropriate court for permission to sue as a poor person if s/he had evidence of wrongful enslavement. In most cases, St. Lou is slaves based cases on residence in free territory.
St. Louis produced a relatively large number of freedom suits in the early 19th century (1824-1844) for a city with a fairly small African-American population. Slaves had easy access to information and legal advice in the city and a high level of autonomy and mobility. (Hiring out, although illegal, was condoned by many slave owners because of its profitability.)
The Missouri Supreme Court decision of Winny v. Whitesides (1824) established Missouri's judicial criteria for eligibility for freedom and set an important and original precedent for Missouri courts. If a slave owner took a slave to Illinois and set up residence there, the slave would be free under the terms of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance (a federal law that prohibited slavery in all American territory north and west of the Ohio River) even if the slave were returned to slave territory
The McGirk court (1820-1841) placed a premium on adhering to the law irrespective of political considerations when determining slave freedom suits; this attitude changed with the appointment of William Napton and William Scott to the court in the mid- 1840s.
Dred and Harriet Scott were among the last people to petition for freedom in St. Louis (1846). They won the case in the lower court, but their owner appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the owner in 1852.
The 1852 decision ended the ability of slaves in Missouri to sue for freedom based on residence in a free state. Although the freedom statute remained on the books until 1865, the Supreme Court continued to be pro-slavery.
Scope and Content
“These case files consist of 292 legal petitions for freedom filed by people of color in St. Louis courts between 1814 and 1860. The bulk of these suits were filed between 1820 and 1850.”
“Case files may include the following documents: petitions filed by attorneys to be granted authority or permission for the individual person of color to bring suit for freedom, affidavits, summonses of witnesses required to support or refute the validity of the suit, writs, replications, depositions of witnesses, motions, bills of sale, lists of slaves sold, deeds of emancipation, wills, orders for sale, land grants, instructions to juries, jury verdicts, appeals, and copies of Missouri Supreme Court decisions.”
Scott v. Sanford
The most well known and the freedom suit with the greatest impact on U. S. history, culture, and society was the one filed in St. Louis Circuit Court by Dred Scott and his wife Harriet in 1846. Although the St. Louis court initially granted freedom to the Scotts, a series of appeals by both parties brought the case before the U. S. Supreme Court in 1857. The federal court's decision to uphold the State Supreme Court's ruling reasoned that the Scotts were and should remain slaves because the United States Constitution did not recognize slaves as citizens. The 1852 decision ended the ability of slaves in Missouri to sue for freedom based on residence in a free state. Although the freedom statute remained on the books until 1865, the Supreme Court continued to be pro-slavery. The Dred Scott decision fueled the ongoing debate over slavery and is among the sequence of significant events that led to the Civil War.
“Once free, always free" was a doctrine upheld by Missouri courts in determining slave freedom suits. Dred Scott sued for his freedom because he had been a resident of Illinois and the Wisconsin territory. The Petition to Sue for Freedom was the first step in the legal process governed by the Missouri statutes. The circuit court granted permission to sue when several conditions, including the posting of bonds, were met. Dred Scott, like most slaves, was not allowed to learn to read or write and was thus unable to sign his name to the petition for freedom. He made his mark with an "X".
Despite that Missouri doctrine, Chief Justice Taney's question still held strong in Scott v. Sanford. Can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution? As a whole, the judgment of the court was that the plaintiff in error was 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 was, consequently, reversed, and a mandate was issued directing the suit to be dismissed for want of jurisdiction.
Dred Scott Approaches: “Examining the Case”
- The Missouri Courts upheld the doctrine of "once free, always free" in determining the status of cases where slaves were suing for their freedom. Dred Scott was not the first slave to bring a case to court, as recorded cases date from 1814-1860, although his case is perhaps the most infamous and well-known. In fact, Dred Scott and his wife were among the last slaves to petition for their freedom in St. Louis. When their case was overruled on appeal by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852, the decision effectively "ended the ability of slaves in Missouri to sue for freedom based on residence in a free state" (Dred Scott Case Collection).
- Although the Dred Scott case was initially filed in 1846, the law under which he was appealing was the "1807 territorial statue (1824 state law) that allowed any person in bondage to petition the appropriate court for permission to sue as a poor person if s/he had evidence of wrongful enslavement" (Dred Scott Case Collection).
- Scott's claim that he was wrongly enslaved was based on the 1824 Winny v. Whitesides, which clearly stated that "if a slave owner took a slave to Illinois and set up residence there, the slave would be free under the terms of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance...even if the slave were returned to slave territory" (Dred Scott Case Collection). This ruling set the precedent for the Missouri Supreme Court regarding a former slave's potential eligibility for freedom.
- The issue of slavery, in particular wrongful enslavement, was not limited exclusively to the African race. Enslavement of Indians was also a prevalent practice, although one which was ended in 1769 by an official Spanish decree. "In 1805, the children of Afro-Indian slave Marie Jean Scypion filed the first suit for freedom in Missouri with the Territorial Superior Court" - a case that would eventually drag on for over thirty years. It was not until November 8, 1836 (and many appeals and overturns in lower courts) that "the jury's unanimous decision in favor of the plaintiffs withstood appeals by the defense to the State and U.S. Supreme Courts, thus officially ending the practice of Indian slavery in Missouri" (St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project).