The Dred Scott Case: Polarization of the Nation
“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical…If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.” —Frederick Douglass, 1857
In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, a decision that galvanized a budding Republican Party, polarized a young nation, and set the stage for the Civil War. For black Americans, the decision radically undermined their legal rights and their faith that God was leading the country toward a true interpretation of American democracy.
The questions raised in the Dred Scott case spoke to a nation divided - divided religiously, geographically, economically, politically, and racially. At the center of that division stood Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived in two states that had outlawed slavery: Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory.
America had become a patchwork of free and slave lands. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had established Missouri as a slave state, but otherwise limited the extension of slavery in the west; no territories above the southern border of Missouri could be admitted to the Union as slave states. That meant that from Illinois to Iowa, each new state that joined the Union sparked a debate about preserving the balance between free and slave states.
Born into slavery in 1799, Scott was illiterate and nearly penniless when he and his wife Harriet first brought their case to the St. Louis Circuit Court in 1846. Like his parents, Scott had been the property of Peter Blow, a prominent Virginian. Scott moved from Virginia to Missouri with the Blow family. There he was sold to a military surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, in 1830. For the next twelve years, Scott traveled the mid-west with Dr. Emerson, moving between Missouri, Illinois, and the Wisconsin Territory. During that time, Dred Scott, his wife Harriet, and daughters Lizzie and Eliza, lived enslaved in a land that outlawed slavery.
In 1846, three years after the death of Dr. Emerson and the transfer of ownership to Emerson's widow Irene, Dred and Harriet Scott filed what would become the first of several landmark suits seeking their freedom. The Scotts lost their first trial, held in 1847, on a technicality - Scott could not prove Emerson's widow was their official owner. The Missouri Supreme Court called for a retrial. In 1850, a jury found in Scott's favor, based on the time he and Harriet had spent living in free territories. It seemed that Dred and Harriet Scott were freed. But their freedom was short-lived.
Two years later, the Missouri State Supreme Court overruled the decision and enslaved them again. The legal wrangling continued when, in 1853, Scott filed suit in the U.S. Federal Court, this time naming John Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother - and executor of Dr. Emerson's estate - as the defendant. Once more Scott's request for freedom was turned down. With nowhere else to turn, Scott and his lawyers appealed to the highest court in the land: the U.S. Supreme Court.
The opinion handed down on March 6, 1857, by Chief Justice Roger Taney was sweeping in its pro-slavery findings. Seven of the nine justices found that Dred Scott should remain enslaved. Taney's opinion argued that Scott, as an enslaved person, was not a citizen and thereby had no grounds to bring suit in federal court. As he put it, blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."
In the end, Dred Scott and his family did win their freedom. Emerson's widow remarried to a northerner, Calvin Chaffee, who was staunchly anti-slavery. In deference to her new husband's wishes, Mrs. Emerson sold the Scotts to the Blow family, their original masters. The Blow family had supported Scott both emotionally and financially throughout the lengthy ordeal, and in May 1857 they gave Scott and his family their freedom. A scant sixteen months later, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis. His epitaph reads: "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, became one of the events that resulted in Civil War."