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Dred Scott v. Sandford

Dred Scott v. Sanford - 60 US (19 How.) 393 (1857)* - also known as the Dred Scott Case, was a lawsuit decided in front of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1857, and considered by many to be a key cause of the American Civil War and the later ratification of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments leading to the abolition of slavery. The decision for the court was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney.

This exists in the official Supreme Court records as Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford, due to a spelling error of a Supreme Court reporter; the actual name of the person being sued was simply "John F. Sandford".

Dred Scott was a slave who was taken to free territory for an extended period of time and then back to the slave state of Missouri. After his original master died, he sued for his freedom. After the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against him, he appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the decision of the Missouri court, but also used the case to fundamentally change the legal balance of power in favor of slave-holders.

* Click here to understand what those numbers mean

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The Case
3 The Decision
4 Further Reading and References


Dred Scott was a slave purchased around 1833 by Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon in the US Army, from John Blow, who had owned Scott perhaps since his birth around 1800, but at least since 1818. Emerson served for over two years at Fort Armstrong, Illinois. Illinois was at the time a free state, and Scott was eligible to be freed under its constitution. In 1836 Armstrong was relocated to Minnesota, then a free territory under the Missouri Compromise and the Wisconsin Enabling Act. During this time, Scott met and married the slave Harriet Robinson; marriage, a legally binding contract, was not open to slaves in the South.

In October, 1837, Emerson was transferred to St. Louis, Missouri, but left Scott and Scott's wife behind for a number of months, hiring them out. Such a hiring constituted slavery, and was clearly illegal under the Missouri Compromise, the Wisconsin Enabling Act, and the Northwest Ordinance.

In November, 1837, Emerson was again transferred to Fort Jesup, Louisiana. The following February, he married Eliza Marie Sanford, and finally sent for Scott and his wife from Minnesota. Though they did go to Louisiana, Scott and his wife were by no means obliged to; they had any number of opportunities to escape on the route, but were likely not aware of that fact.

Within five months, Emerson was again transferred to Fort Snelling in St. Louis, where he remained until May 1840. During the trip, in what were clearly waters bordering free territories, Eliza Scott, the first child of Dred Scott, was born. In May 1840, Emerson was sent to fight in the Seminole War in Florida, and left his wife and slaves behind in St. Louis. After his return, he moved to the free territory of Iowa, but left Scott and his wife behind in St. Louis, again hiring them out.

In December 1843, Emerson died unexpectedly at the age of forty. Scott and his family worked as hired slaves for the next three years, with Irene Emerson taking in the rent. In February 1846, Scott tried to purchase his freedom from Irene Emerson, but she refused. In April, 1846, he sued for his freedom.

The Case

Missouri Court History

The first case Scott brought was lost on a technicality: Scott could not prove to the court that Emerson indeed owned him and his family. A judge ordered a second trial in December 1847; Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which sided with Scott in June 1848. A new trial did not begin until January, 1850, and the jury sided with Scott and his family. Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Irene Emerson turned the responsibility of the case over to her brother, John F. A. Sanford of New York, who acted on her behalf. Though 28 years of Missouri legal precedent held that Scott should have been freed, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, holding that Scott was still a slave.

Federal Court History

The Suit

Scott, who was forced to get new lawyers due to the death and departure of his previous counsel, then filed suit in Federal Court. This case was brought against John Sanford, who avidly defended the suit because of the monetary interest; since the beginning of the very first trails, Scott and his family, in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff, had been rented out, and the not inconsiderable proceeds were held in escrow for the ultimate winner of the case.

Scott at this time received support from the family of his first owner, John Blow. Charles Edmund LaBeaume, a brother-in-law of Peter Blow, was in fact renting the Scotts, and helped Scott sue for his freedom in Federal Court.

Scott sued Sanford in US Circuit Court for battery and wrongful imprisonment, and asked for nine thousand dollars in damages. The point of the trial was less the case itself, than an attempt to get the court to recognize Scott's freedom. Sanford, who was controlling Scott, would have been committing wrongful imprisonment if Scott were indeed free (this is why the case was brought against Sanford and not Scott's real owner, Irene Emerson).

Federal Jurisdiction Issues

Federal district judge Robert W. Wells first had to determine whether he had jurisdiction to hear the case. Scott argued "in diversity," claiming that the case entered federal jurisdiction because he was a citizen of Missouri and the defendant was a citizen of New York (a case between citizens of two states falls in federal court jurisdiction). Sanford disagreed in a "plea of abatement," claiming that Scott, because he was black, could not be a citizen of Missouri and that the federal court had no jurisdiction.

Wells rejected the plea of abatement, accepting that even if Scott did not have full legal or political rights, he had the ability to bring suit in federal court. The case thus went to trial.

The Trial

Sanford admitted he had "gently laid his hands upon" Scott and his family, thus admitting to the accusations brought against him, but claimed he had the ability to do so because Scott was legally his property. The case went to trial in May 1854, with Judge Wells ordering the jury to determine Scott's status by Missouri law; Scott's status as a slave having already been decided by the Missouri Supreme Court, and the Scotts never having availed themselves of their prior ability to declare themselves free in Illinois, Sanford won the case.

The Supreme Court Case

Players and the Arguments

Though the Blows were no longer afford to support Scott in a legal battle in front of the Supreme Court, Montgomery Blair, a Washington-area lawyer with ties to Missouri, took the case for free. Sanford retained US Senator Henry S. Geyer of Missouri and Maryland politician Reverdy Johnson. Blair received little support from the Antislavery movement, indicating few expected the eventual outcome of the case.

Scott appealed to the Supreme Court in December 1854, arguing that Judge Wells erred in charging the jury that Scott was not entitled to freedom. The Supreme Court held the case for the December 1855 term and heard arguments in February 1856.

Briefss and oral arguments in the case were presented to the court over four days (in the 19th century, unlike today, arguments often lasted one or two days), focusing on the question of whether blacks could be citizens of the United States, whether Congress could outlaw slavery in the territories, and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. The court in May postponed a decision for a year, scheduling re-argument on two questions:

''1. Had the Circuit Court of the United States jurisdiction to hear and determine the case between these parties? And
2. If it had jurisdiction, is the judgment it has given erroneous or not?''

In other words, did the first federal court correctly judge the plea of abatement by ruling that it had jurisdiction, and, if it did have jurisdiction, then did it decide correctly that Dred Scott was still a slave?

One year later, In December 1856, the court heard argument on these issues and the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. The case was now starting to gain public attention, and the constitutional lawyer George T. Curtis, brother of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis, joined in the argument on Scott's side.

(more coming...I promise!!!)

The Justices

The Decision

The ruling was handed down on March 6, 1857.

The Impact

Further Reading and References