America in 1857 was a nation on the brink. Relationship between the North and
South had been strained for decades and was only getting worse. All tension had to do
with the issues of slavery. In 1848 the U.S. had acquired new lands in the Mexican
cession, and the debate was on. The question was whether or not the South should be
allowed to spread slavery into the new states. This debate turned violent many times. The
South threatened to secede from the Union if a candidate from the Republican party, who
was antislavery, won. Amidst all of the tension would emerge a slave named Dredd Scott.
Dredd Scott was a slave to Dr. John Emerson in St.Louis, Missouri a slave state.
Scott spent most of his time in Illinois, a free state, because his owner Dr. Emerson was an
Army doctor and he stayed in Fort Armstrong in Illinois. Living in a free state had
constituted freedom for previous slaves so Scott felt that he too deserved his freedom and
he brought his first case to court on April 6, 1846, at this time he had moved back to
Missouri and was the property of Dr. Emerson’s wife. Scott filed a declaration on April 6,
1846,which stated that Mrs. Emerson had “beat, bruised and ill treated him” before
imprisoning him for twelve hours. He declared that he was to be free on the basis that he
had lived of Fort Armstrong and Fort Snelling which were both located in free states.
Scott felt that he had a strong case as the Supreme Court of Missouri had freed slaves
previous to him who had also traveled with their masters to free states. Scott lost the first
case and brought the case up again in 1850 to the Supreme Court of Missouri, the same
court which had freed slaves previous on the same terms. The difference now was that
two of the three justices serving on the court were pro-slavery whereas in cases prior to
Scott vs. Emerson the Justices had a more apathetic view of slavery and saw it as a
neccesary evil. The court ruled against Scott in 1852 and once again his attempt at
freedom had failed. His next step was to take his case into the federal judicial system as he
brought it to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Missouri.
The Scott case would be very different when entered into the federal court
however. First Scott had a new owner who was John F.A. Sanford, the brother of Mrs.
Emerson. Once again Scotts attempt failed based on Sanford’s argument that Scott had
regained his slave status when he returned to Missouri and therefor was a slave and had no
right to seek freedom. This was not Scott’s final attempt at freedom however. He decided
to take his case to the highest court in the nation.
Before proceeding to the Supreme Court with his case Dredd Scott found a lawyer
to represent his cause. The lawyer that took his case was a man named, Montgomery
Blair, a fellow Missourian. Blair was a highly respected lawyer in Washington, and was an
anti-slavery supporter. He also agreed to take Scott’s defense at no charge. The case had a
huge political impact at this time and was delayed one year in order to avoid debates about
the controversial topic in the election of 1856.
Scott’s case had not attracted much attention until it reached the Supreme Court.
The Scott case renewed debate over slavery issues and also the debate over whether
Congress had the power to regulate slavery. Both the republican and Democratic parties
agreed that the slavery issue should rest in the arms of the Supreme Court.
When the Supreme Court met for the first time on the case on February 14, 1857,
it favored the previous courts decision that ruled in favor of Mr. Sanford. Yet this case
opened other arguments such as Negro citizenship and the constitutionality of the
Missouri Compromise. When these issues were heard in court the court elected Chief
Justice Roger B. Taney to represent the majority decision in the court. The court battle
lasted nearly a month and on March 6, 1857, the court had reached a decision.
The first decision addressed by Roger Taney was whether or not Scott even had a
right to bring this case to court. Taney stated that, one of the privileges reserved for
citizens of the United States was the privilege of suing in a court of the United States.
Taney stated that Negroes had no right to bring suit in a U.S. federal court as they were
not citizens and had no right as citizens. Therefor Scott did not have the privilege of even
suing in the court. The other issue addressed was the constitutionality of the Missouri
Compromise. The compromise stated that no state above the 36th parallel would be a
slave state and slaves residing in them would be free. Taney ruled that the Missouri
Compromise was unconstitutional based on his view that slaves were not people but
property and the Missouri Compromise deprived slaveholders from property which was
unconstitutional. Taney also ruled that Scott’s argument that he lived in a free state was
irrelevant because when he brought his case to court he made his residence in Missouri
which was a slave state. The case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and sent back to
the lower court with instructions for the lower court to dismiss the case also. This upheld
the Missouri Supreme Courts decision ruling in favor of Sanford.
The Dredd Scott case can be seen as a failure for Scott himself but it brought
about many political debates about slavery. The Dredd Scott case in my opinion had the
larger impact on American politics and society than did any other slave related issue.
Northerners became outraged at the decisions by the court as well as the Republicans.
Southerners looked at the Republicans in disregard as they supported the antislavery issue.
The Dredd Scott case inspired many abolitionist feelings amongst Americans. Northerners
feared that slavery would spread to their territory and the Southerners grew angry with
anti-slavery followers in the North. Tension between the North and South grew day by
day. Four years after the decision in the Scott vs. Sanford case was read by Taney, half of
the Union seceded and the country began a civil war.
Although Dredd Scott did not see the direct effect of his actions he alone changed
our country by simply taking a stand. Being in the severe minority it is a huge victory for
Scott even though he did not win any of his cases or his freedom but he did win the hearts
of abolitionists who later would support his cause and eventually fight for the freedom of
all blacks. Dredd Scott was a great man in American history who may not be seen as a
large player in the eventual victory by the North. If it wasn’t for Dredd Scott the
Northerners may have never seen the potential for slavery to spread and when they least
expected slavery would consume them also. Dredd Scott brought forth the awareness
about slavery that leads to the society of today where people are treated as