Dred Scott

Dred Scott

Dred Scott (1795 – September 17, 1858), was an African-American slave in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as "the Dred Scott Decision." His case was based on the fact that although he and his wife Harriet Scott were slaves, he had lived with his master Dr. John Emerson in states and territories where slavery was illegal according to both state laws and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, including Illinois and Minnesota (which was then part of the Wisconsin Territory). The United States Supreme Court ruled seven to two against Scott, finding that neither he, nor any person of African ancestry, could claim citizenship in the United States, and therefore Scott could not bring suit in federal court under diversity of citizenship rules. Moreover, Scott's temporary residence outside Missouri did not bring about his emancipation under the Missouri Compromise, which the court ruled unconstitutional as it would improperly deprive Scott's owner of his legal property.

While Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had hoped to settle issues related to slavery and Congressional authority by this decision, it aroused outrage and deepened sectional tensions. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the post-Civil war Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments nullified the decision.



The case raised the issue of the status of slaves who had been held as residents in a free state. Such states and territories held that a slaveholder forfeited his rights to property by illegally holding a slave to a state that prohibited the institution and where there was no law to support his controlling the slave. Congress had never before addressed whether slaves were free if they set foot upon free soil. The ruling overturned the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional, since it ruled that as slavery was protected in the Constitution, Congress could not regulate it in the federal Territories and deprive a slave owner of his property without due process. This conclusion enraged the abolitionist Republicans and further exacerbated sectional sentiments that led to the Civil War.

Scott often traveled with his master Dr. John Emerson, a doctor in the US Army, who was regularly transferred under Army command. Scott's stay with his master in Illinois, a free state, gave him the legal leverage to make a claim for freedom, as did his extended stay at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory (now Minnesota), where slavery was also prohibited. Scott did not file a petition for freedom while living in the free lands—perhaps because he was unaware of his rights at the time, or because he was afraid of the possible repercussions. After two years, the army transferred Emerson to territory where slavery was legal: first to St. Louis, Missouri, then to Louisiana. In just over a year, the recently married Emerson summoned his slave couple. Instead of staying in the free territory of Wisconsin (now Minnesota), or going to the free state of Illinois, the two traveled nearly 1,250 miles (2000 km),[citation needed] apparently unaccompanied, down the Mississippi River to meet their master. Only after Emerson's death in 1843, when Emerson's widow hired out Scott to an army captain, did Scott seek freedom for himself, his wife and their children. First he offered to buy his freedom from Emerson's widow, Irene Emerson—then living in St. Louis—for US$300, about $7,000 in current value. After she refused his request , Scott sought freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court.


In the late 1790s, Dred Scott was born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia, as property to the Peter Blow family. From what experts can conclude, Scott was originally named Sam and had an older brother named Dred. However, when the brother died as a young man, Scott chose to take his brother's name instead. The Blow family settled near Huntsville, Alabama, where they unsuccessfully attempted farming.

In 1830 the Blow family took Scott with them when they relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. They sold him to John Emerson, a doctor serving in the United States Army.

Marriage and family

In 1836 Dred Scott met a teen-aged slave named Harriet Robinson whose master was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an army officer from Virginia. Taliaferro allowed Scott and Harriet to marry and transferred his ownership of Harriet to Dr. Emerson so the couple could be together. A couple of years later, Harriet gave birth to their first child, Eliza. In 1840, they had another daughter whom they named Lizzie. Eventually they would also have two sons, however, neither survived past infancy.

Dr. Emerson married Irene Sanford,[1] and the Emersons and Scotts returned to Missouri in 1842. When Dr. Emerson died the following year, his widow took over the estate. Scott offered to purchase his freedom from the widow Emerson, but she refused his request.

Dred Scott case

Having failed to purchase his freedom, in 1846 Scott filed legal suit in St Louis Circuit Court through the help of a local lawyer. Historical details about why Scott sought recourse in the court system are unclear. The Scott v. Emerson case was tried in 1847 in the federal-state courthouse in St. Louis. The judgment went against Scott, but having found evidence of hearsay, the judge called for a retrial.[citation needed]

In 1850, a Missouri jury concluded that Scott and his wife should be granted freedom since they had been illegally held as slaves during their extended residence in the free jurisdictions of Illinois and Wisconsin. Irene Emerson appealed. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the lower court ruling, saying, "Times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made." They ruled that the precedent of "once free always free" was no longer the case, overturning 28 years of legal precedent. They told the Scotts they should have sued for freedom in Wisconsin. Justice Hamilton R. Gamble, a future governor of the state, sharply disagreed with the majority decision and wrote a dissenting opinion. The Scotts were returned to their master's wife.[citation needed]

Under Missouri law at the time, after Dr. Emerson had died, powers of the Emerson estate were transferred to his wife's brother, John F. A. Sanford. Because Sanford was a citizen of New York, Scott's lawyers "claimed the case should now be brought before the Federal courts, on the grounds of diverse citizenship."[2] With the assistance of new lawyers (including Montgomery Blair), the Scotts filed suit in the federal court.

After losing again in federal district court, they appealed to the United States Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford. (The name is spelled 'Sandford' in the court decision due to a clerical error.)

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion. Taney ruled that:

  • Any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States, according to the Constitution. (Note: Only 3/5ths of a state's slave population total was counted in their population total. Contrary to popular belief, slaves were not counted as 3/5ths of a person. They were considered property in historic records. There were free blacks in several of the 13 states when the Constitution was written. Their number increased dramatically in the Upper South in the first two decades after the Revolution; for instance, by 1810, fully 10 percent of the population in the Upper South were free blacks, as numerous slaveholders manumitted their slaves in this period, inspired by Revolutionary principles of equality.[3])
  • The Ordinance of 1787 could not confer either freedom or citizenship within the Northwest Territory to non-white individuals.
  • The provisions of the Act of 1820, known as the Missouri Compromise, were voided as a legislative act, since the act exceeded the powers of Congress, insofar as it attempted to exclude slavery and impart freedom and citizenship to non-white persons in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase.[4]

The Court had ruled that African Americans had no claim to freedom or citizenship. Since they were not citizens, they did not possess the legal standing to bring suit in a federal court. As slaves were private property, Congress did not have the power to regulate slavery in the territories and could not revoke a slave owner's rights based on where he lived. This decision nullified the essence of the Missouri Compromise, which divided territories into jurisdictions either free or slave. Speaking for the majority, Taney ruled that because Scott was simply considered the private property of his owners, that he was subject to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting the taking of property from its owner "without due process".

The decision increased tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in both North and South, further pushing the country towards the brink of civil war.[citation needed]


Following the ruling, Scott and his family were returned to Emerson's widow. In the meantime, her brother John Sanford had been committed to an insane asylum. In 1850, Irene Sanford Emerson had remarried. Her new husband, Calvin C. Chaffee, was an abolitionist, who shortly after was elected to the US Congress. Chaffee was apparently unaware that his wife owned the most prominent slave in the United States until one month before the Supreme Court decision. By then it was too late for him to intervene, and Chaffee was harshly criticized for having been married to a slaveholder.[citation needed] He was able to convince his wife Irene to return Scott to his original owners, the Blow family. By this time, The Blow family had relocated to Missouri and become opponents of slavery, granting the Scotts emancipation by Henry Taylor Blow on May 26, 1857, less than three months after the Supreme Court ruling.[citation needed] Scott went to work as a porter in St. Louis for nearly 17 months before he died from tuberculosis in September 1858.[citation needed] Scott was survived by his wife and his two daughters.

Scott was originally interred in Wesleyan Cemetery in St. Louis. When this cemetery was closed nine years later, Taylor Blow transferred Scott's coffin to a plot in the nearby Catholic cemetery, Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri, which permitted burial of non-Catholic slaves by Catholic owners.[5] A local tradition later developed of placing Lincoln pennies on top of Scott's gravestone for good luck.[5]

Harriet Scott was long thought to be buried near her husband, but it was later proven that she was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale, Missouri. She outlived her husband by 18 years, dying on June 17, 1876.[6]


  • Their daughter Eliza Scott married and had two sons. Lizzie never married, but following her sister's early death, she helped raise her nephews. One of Eliza's sons died young, but the other married and has descendants, some of whom still live in St. Louis as of 2010.[7]


  • The Dred Scott Case ended the prohibition of slavery in federal territories and prohibited Congress from regulating slavery anywhere.
  • The ruling of the court helped catalyze sentiment for Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the three constitutional amendments ratified shortly after the Civil War: the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, abolishing slavery, granting former slaves citizenship, and conferring citizenship to anyone born in the United States.[8]

See also

Further reading

  • Swain, Gwenyth (2004). Dred and Harriet Scott: A Family's Struggle for Freedom. Saint Paul, MN: Borealis Books. ISBN 9780873514831. 
  • Shurtleff, Mark (2009). Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story. Orem, UT: Valor Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1935546009. 
  • Tsesis, Alexander (2008). We Shall Overcome: A History of Civil Rights and the Law. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300118377. 


  1. ^ Vishneski, John. "What the Court Decided in 'Dred Scott v. Sandford' ", The American Journal of Legal history 32(4): 373-390.
  2. ^ Randall, J. G., and David Donald. A House Divided. The Civil War and Reconstruction. 2nd ed. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1961, pp. 107-114.
  3. ^ Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1999, 7th printing, p. 82.
  4. ^ "Decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Case". The New York Daily Times (New York). March 7, 1857. http://nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0306.html#article. Retrieved May 26, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b O'Neil, Time (March 6, 2007). "Dred Scott: Heirs to History". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. http://www.ulstl.org/Microsoft%20Word%20-%20Dred%20Scot%20Heirs%20to%20History%2003-06-07.pdf. Retrieved May 26, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Dred Scott Case, 1846-1857". Collections. Missouri Digital Heritage. http://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/resources/africanamerican/scott/scott.asp. Retrieved May 26, 2011. 
  7. ^ Dred and Harriet Scott: Their Family Story, St. Louis Today, KWMU-FM, Interview with author Ruth Ann Hager, 4 Feb 2010, accessed 4 Feb 2010
  8. ^ Paul Finkleman, Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents, Palgrave Macmillan, 1997, pp. 7-9, accessed 26 February 2011

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Dred Scott — (* um 1799; † 17. September 1858) war ein Sklave, der im berühmten Dred Scott v. Sandford Prozess erfolglos für seine Freiheit klagte. Seine Klage beruhte auf dem Umstand, dass er und seine Frau Harriet in US Bundesstaaten und Territorien gewohnt …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Dred Scott — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Scott. Portrait de Dred Scott par Louis Schultze. Dred Scott est un esclave afro américain né en 1795 en Virginie et mort le 17 sep …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Dred Scott — noun United States slave who sued for liberty after living in a non slave state; caused the Supreme Court to declare the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional (1795? 1858) • Syn: ↑Scott • Instance Hypernyms: ↑slave …   Useful english dictionary

  • Dred Scott — (1795 1858) slave who appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to achieve freedom (lost the case in a court decision that sparked major controversy between the northern and southern USA) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford — Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court of the United States Argued February 11–14, 1856 Reargued December 15 …   Wikipedia

  • Dred Scott gegen Sandford — Dred Scott v. Sandford Verhandelt 11. 14. Februar 1856 / 15. 18. Februar 1857 Entschieden 6. März 1857 Rubrum: Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford Aktenzeichen: 60 U.S. 393 (1856) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Dred Scott vs. Sandford — Dred Scott v. Sandford Verhandelt 11. 14. Februar 1856 / 15. 18. Februar 1857 Entschieden 6. März 1857 Rubrum: Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford Aktenzeichen: 60 U.S. 393 (1856) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford — Verhandelt 11. 14. Februar 1856 / 15. 18. Februar 1857 Entschieden 6. März 1857 Rubrum: Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford Aktenzeichen: 60 U.S. 393 (1856) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Dred Scott Decision — /dred/. See under Scott (def. 2). * * * formally Dred Scott v. Sandford 1857 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States that made slavery legal in all U.S. territories. Scott was a slave whose master had taken him in 1834 from a slave state …   Universalium

  • Dred Scott Decision — /dred/. See under Scott (def. 2). * * * Dred Scott Decision «DREHD SKOT», a decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1857, upholding the right of a master in his slave as property and denying the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise …   Useful english dictionary

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