Dred Scott v. Sandford
Dred Scott v. Sandford is one of the most important Supreme Court case involving race and African Americans decided before the Civil War.The facts of the case are said to be complicated, as is the lengthy opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. But the implications for blacks and American race relations were profound.
Dred Scott’s Life and Suit For Freedom
Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia sometime between 1795 and 1800. In 1830 his owner, Peter Blow, moved to St. Louis, taking Scott with him. After Blow’s death, Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson, a U.S. Army surgeon. Emerson took Scott to Fort Armstrong in Illinois, and then to Fort Snelling in what was then the Wisconsin Territory and eventually became part of Minnesota. Illinois was a free state, while the Missouri Compromise of 1820 Congress had prohibited slavery in the Wisconsin Territory. While living at Fort Snelling, Scott married Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by Major Lawrence Taliaferro, the Indian Agent stationed near Fort Snelling. Taliaferro was also a justice of the peace, and in that capacity he performed a formal wedding ceremony for his Harriet and Dred. This was extraordinary and significant. Under the laws of the slave states, no slave could actually participate in a legal marriage, kind of how many politicians today have endeavored to keep the LGBT community from communions and marriages. Slaves might be married by their those who owned them or by a clergyman, but because a marriage is a legal contract, these ceremonies were always informal. This formal marriage by the local justice of the peace may be an indication that after living in nonslave jurisdictions for more than two years, people at Fort Snelling presumed Scott to be free.
Scott then asked Emerson’s widow, Irene Sanford Emerson, to allow him to purchase his own freedom. When she refused, Scott sued for freedom based on his residences in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory.
Scott did not gain his freedom at this time, however, and he remained captive by Emerson until the physician died in 1843. Scott then asked Emerson’s widow, Irene Sanford Emerson, to allow him to purchase his own freedom. When she refused, Scott sued for freedom based on his residences in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. His case was delayed for a variety of reasons, but in 1850 a jury of twelve white men in St. Louis declared Scott, his wife, and their two daughters to be free. This decision was supported by nearly thirty years of Missouri precedents, which held that a slave became free when allowedto live in a free jurisdiction. Irene Emerson then appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which in 1852 overturned the jury’s decision and held that Scott was not free. The Court explicitly rejected its long-held position that if a slave resided or worked in a free state because of the voluntary act of a captor, the slave became free.
In a frankly political decision, Justice William Scott explained:
Times are not now as they were when the former decisions on this subject were made. Since then, not only individuals but States have been possessed with a dark and fell spirit in relation to slavery, whose gratification is sought in the pursuit of measures, whose inevitable consequence must be the overthrow and destruction of our Government. Under such circumstances, it does not behoove the State of Missouri to show the least countenance to any measure which might gratify this spirit.
The case should have ended at this point. Scott’s status had been determined by the highest court of his state, and he had no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. At this time, the U.S. Constitution did not generally protect the liberties or rights of individuals, and personal status was generally determined by the states.
At about the time Scott won his jury trial, his owner, Irene Emerson moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where she married a Massachusetts physician named Calvin Chafee. Irene Emerson Chafee’s brother, John F.A. Sanford, now looked after her interests. By 1854, Sanford, who had assumed ownership of Scott, had moved to New York. This set the circumstances for Scott to make one more attempt to gain his freedom. (The Supreme Court would misspell Sanford’s name as ‘‘Sandford,’’ and thus the case would be argued as Dred Scott v. Sandford.)