Anniversary of the Dred Scott Decision

    By Kelly Maue

    Dred Scott was an enslaved man who served several owners before suing for his freedom. His case made it through the court system all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was ruled that Africans could not be United States citizens. After his decade-long fight, Dred Scott lost the final court battle for his and his family’s freedom on March 6, 1857. 

    Born into slavery around 1799 in Virginia, Dred Scott lived in various slave states with his owner, Peter Blow. After Blow died, Scott was purchased by Dr. John Emerson and moved to other states and territories. While in Fort Snelling (in what is now Minnesota), Scott married another enslaved person, Harriet Robinson. Her ownership was transferred to Emerson. Dred and Harriet Scott went on to have two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie.  

    In 1840, the Emersons and Scotts returned to Missouri. 

    After John Emerson’s sudden death, his enslaved workers became the property of his wife, Irene. Scott tried to buy his freedom from her, but she refused. So, Scott and his wife filed suits separately to gain their family’s freedom. 

    Their cases were combined, and this began their decade-long court battles. Since neither Scotts could read or write, they received help from abolitionists, their church, and the Blow family – who once owned them.  

    The Missouri circuit court first heard the Scotts’ cases in 1847. Since they had lived in free territories through the years, this first court upheld the “once free, always free” standard. However, Irene Emerson appealed, and the state supreme court overruled the decision. 

    Court battles, appeals, and retrials continued. Finally, Scott filed a freedom suit in federal court in a case he later appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court; this trial began in February of 1856. The Federal Supreme Court overturned earlier precedents and new restrictions were instituted on African Americans. This final decision enraged abolitionists and was consequential to the anti-slavery movement and the Civil War. 

    Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the majority opinion on March 6, 1857. He ruled:

    1.   Any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States, according to the U.S. Constitution.

    2.   The Ordinance of 1787 could not confer either freedom or citizenship within the Northwest Territory to non-white individuals.

    3.   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. 

    Chief Justice Taney hoped this ruling would help settle issues regarding slavery. However, the decision worsened tensions between the North and South and hastened the American Civil War.  

    Ironically, Chief Justice Taney swore in Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president of the United States. And Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy in 1863.

    For more information on the Dred Scott Decision, please click on HEC Media’s Seeking Freedom