Dred Scott decision
ARTICLE from the Encyclopædia Britannica


Dred Scott decision, formally Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford, Dred Scott. (March 6, 1857), ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that made slavery legal in all the territories, thereby adding fuel to the sectional controversy and pushing the nation along the road to civil war.

Dred Scott was a slave who was owned by Dr. John Emerson of Missouri. In 1834 Emerson undertook a series of moves as part of his service in the U.S. military. He took Scott from Missouri (a slave state) to Illinois (a free state) and finally into the Wisconsin Territory (a free territory under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise). During this period, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, who became part of the Emerson household. In the early 1840s the Emersons (Dr. Emerson had married in 1838) and the Scotts returned to Missouri, and Dr. Emerson died in 1843.

Dred Scott reportedly attempted to purchase his freedom from Emerson’s widow, who refused the sale. In 1846, with the help of antislavery lawyers, Harriet and Dred Scott filed individual lawsuits for their freedom in the Missouri state courts on the grounds that their residence in a free state and a free territory had freed them from the bonds of slavery. It was later agreed that only Dred’s case would move forward; the decision in that case would apply to Harriet’s case as well. Although the case was long thought to have been unusual, historians have demonstrated that several hundred suits for freedom were filed by or on behalf of slaves in the decades before the Civil War.

Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson took years to reach a definitive decision. The case was initially filed in the Saint Louis Circuit Court. In 1850 a lower court declared Scott free, but the verdict was overturned in 1852 by the Missouri Supreme Court. Mrs. Emerson soon left Missouri and gave control of her late husband’s estate to her brother, John F.A. Sanford, a resident of New York; his last name was incorrectly spelled Sandford on court documents. Because Sanford was not subject to suit in Missouri, Scott’s lawyers filed a suit against him in the U.S. federal courts. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which announced its decision on March 6, 1857, just two days after the inauguration of Pres. James Buchanan.

Though each justice wrote a separate opinion, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion is most often cited on account of its far-reaching implications for the sectional crisis. As one of the seven justices denying Scott his freedom (two dissented), Taney declared that an African American could not be entitled to rights as a U.S. citizen, such as the right to sue in federal courts. In fact, Taney wrote, African Americans had “no rights which any white man was bound to respect.” The decision might have ended there, with the dismissal of Scott’s appeal. But Taney and the other justices in the majority went on to declare that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which had forbidden slavery in that part of the Louisiana Purchase north of the latitude 36°30', except for Missouri) was unconstitutional because Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories. Slaves were property, and masters were guaranteed their property rights under the Fifth Amendment. Neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could deprive a citizen of his property without due process of law. As for Scott’s temporary residence in a free state, Illinois, the majority said that Scott had still been subject then to Missouri law.

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The decision—only the second time in the country’s history that the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional—was a clear victory for the slaveholding South. Southerners had argued that both Congress and the territorial legislature were powerless to exclude slavery from a territory. Only a state could exclude slavery, they maintained. This seemed a mortal blow to the newly created Republican Party, formed to halt the extension of slavery into the western territories. It also forced Stephen A. Douglas, advocate of popular sovereignty, to come up with a method (the “Freeport Doctrine”) whereby settlers could actually ban slavery from their midst. President Buchanan, the South, and the majority of the Supreme Court hoped that the Dred Scott decision would mark the end of antislavery agitation. Instead, the decision increased antislavery sentiment in the North, strengthened the Republican Party, and fed the sectional antagonism that burst into war in 1861.

The Scotts were later bought by the Blow family, who had sold Dred to Dr. Emerson, and they were freed in 1857. Dred died of tuberculosis the following year. Little is known of Harriet’s life after that time.




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