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The Dred Scott Case Turns 160

One hundred and sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued one of its most controversial rulings that preceded the Civil War. We take a brief look at how the ‘Dred Scott v. Sandford’ case came to be and what resulted afterwards.

A Man Seeking Freedom

Slaveholder Peter Blow bought Virginia-born slave Dred Scott and moved westward, eventually settling in St. Louis, Missouri in 1830. But just two years later, Blow died, and Scott was bought by army surgeon Dr. John Emerson. Taking Scott with him, Emerson moved to Illinois and Wisconsin — both free states — for extended stays, and it’s in the latter that Scott met his wife Harriet, who was also a slave whom he married in the late 1830s. Transferred to the South for work, Emerson leased Scott and his wife to other officers before summoning them a little over a year later to Louisiana, where they were to meet Emerson and his new wife. Eventually, the Emersons and the Scotts moved to Missouri. In 1843 Emerson died, and it was a few years later that Scott tried to purchase his and his family’s freedom (by now he and wife Harriet had two daughters), but Mrs. Emerson refused. Scott, with the financial backing of Peter Blow’s sons, who became anti-slavery proponents, sought help from the courts.

Dred Scott Painting by Louis Schultze Digital Image ©1998 Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis

Dred Scott Painting by Louis Schultze Digital Image ©1998 Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis

Dred Scott ruling

Scott lost his case in Missouri state court in 1847, but because Mrs. Emerson left the Scotts under the supervision of her brother John Sanford, who was a New York citizen, Scott was able to appeal to the federal court and eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, he was at a gross disadvantage. The U.S. Supreme Court of 1856 was filled with justices who owned slaves or were appointed by pro-slavery presidents. In order to have his case heard in the federal system, Scott had originally argued that he and John Sanford were citizens from different states. Thus, the two main issues at hand for the justices to decide were whether they had the authority to hear the case and if Scott was actually a citizen.

After 10 years of fighting for his freedom, Scott received devastating news. On March 6, 1857 the Court made its decision. A pro-slavery advocate, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, delivered the opinion, stating that Scott’s African ancestry nullified him as a citizen, and therefore, he had no rights to sue. Taney also declared that Scott could not consider himself free based on his living north of the Missouri Compromise line, since, in the Court’s eyes, states had no constitutional authority to ban slavery in territories.

Historic Impact

While Southern slaveholders applauded the decision, abolitionists in the North were incensed. The Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling caused vigorous debate and contributed to the election of Abraham Lincoln and ultimately, the Civil War.

As for Scott, one of Peter Blow’s sons purchased him shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision and set him and his family free. The timing was bittersweet, though; Scott died just a little over a year later.