South Carolina - Antebellum Key Events - The Dred Scott Decision

Dred Scott

The Dred Scott Decision was a lawsuit, pivotal in the history of the United States, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1857 that ruled that people of African descent, whether or not they were slaves, could never be citizens of the United States, and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The decision for the Court was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney.

The decision sided with border ruffians in the Bleeding Kansas dispute who were afraid a free Kansas would be a haven for runaway slaves from Missouri. It enraged abolitionists. The polarization of the slavery debate is considered one of many factors leading to the American Civil War. And, the results of the Dred Scott Decision probably hastened the upcoming Civil War more than any other single act had done over the previous fifty years.

Dred Scott was an enslaved man, purchased around 1833 by Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, from Peter Blow, who had owned Scott perhaps since his birth in 1795 but at least since 1818. Dr. Emerson served for over three years at Fort Armstrong, Illinois. Illinois was a free state, and Scott was eligible to be freed under its constitution. In 1836, Dr. Emerson was relocated to the Wisconsin Territory, now present day Minnesota, 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 of 1837, Dr. Emerson moved to St. Louis, Missouri but left Scott and Harriet behind for several months, hiring them out. Hiring out Scott constituted slavery, and was clearly illegal under the Missouri Compromise, the Wisconsin Enabling Act, and the Northwest Ordinance.

In November of 1837, Dr. Emerson was transferred to Fort Jessup, Louisiana. The following February, he married Irene Marie Sanford and finally sent for Scott from Minnesota. The Scotts followed Dr. Emerson and his family, first to St. Louis and then to Fort Snelling, where they remained until May 1840. During the trip, in what were waters bordering free territories, Eliza Scott, the first child of Dred Scott, was born.

In May of 1840, Dr. 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 of 1843, Dr. 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 of 1846, Scott tried to purchase his freedom from Irene Emerson, but she refused.

In April of 1846, he sued for his freedom, arguing that since he had been in both a free state and a free territory he had become legally free, and could not have afterwards reverted to being a slave.

The first case Dred Scott brought was won on a technicality - Scott could not prove to the court that he was a slave. A judge ordered a second trial in December of 1847. Mrs. Emerson appealed the order for a second trial to the Supreme Court of Missouri, which ruled against her in June of 1848. A new trial did not begin until January of 1850, and the jury ruled Scott and his family were legally free. Mrs. Emerson again appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri.

At this point, Mrs. Emerson turned the responsibility of the case over to her brother, John F. A. Sandford of New York, who acted on her behalf. The Missouri Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision, holding that Scott was still a slave. This decision was inconsistent with the Court's own precedents. Missouri courts had consistently ruled that slaves taken into free states were automatically free. Missouri Chief Justice Hamilton Rowan Gamble, who owned slaves, wrote a dissenting opinion.

After the November 1856 national election, President-elect James Buchanan wrote to his friend in the Supreme Court, Associate Justice John Catron, asking whether the case would be decided before his inauguration in March of 1857. Buchanan hoped the decision would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a decision that put the future of slavery beyond the realm of political debate.

Buchanan later successfully pressured Associate Justice Robert C. Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines. By present-day standards, any such correspondence would be considered improper ex parte contact with a court; even under the more lenient standards of that century, political pressure applied on a member of a sitting court would have been seen as improper.

The ruling was handed down on March 6, 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court, with each of the justices joining in or dissenting from the decision filed separate opinions. In total, six justices agreed with the ruling, while Associate Justice Samuel Nelson concurred with the ruling but not its reasoning, and Associate Justices Benjamin R. Curtis and John McLean dissented.

The Supreme Court first had to decide whether it had jurisdiction. Article III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that "the judicial Power shall extend… to Controversies… between Citizens of different States…" The Court first held that Scott was not a "citizen of a state" within the meaning of the United States Constitution, as that term was understood at the time the Constitution was adopted, and therefore not able to bring suit in federal court. Furthermore, whether a person is a citizen of a state, for Article III purposes, was strictly a federal question. This meant that although any state could confer state citizenship on an individual for purposes of state law, no state could confer state citizenship on an individual for purposes of Article III. In other words, the federal courts did not have to look to who a state conferred citizenship when interpreting the words "citizen of… a state" in the federal Constitution. Rather, it was the federal courts who were to determine who was a citizen of a state for Article III purposes.

Thus, whether Missouri recognized Scott as a citizen was irrelevant. Chief Justice Taney summed up:

"Consequently, no State, since the adoption of the Constitution, can by naturalizing an alien invest him with the rights and privileges secured to a citizen of a State under the Federal Government, although, so far as the State alone was concerned, he would undoubtedly be entitled to the rights of a citizen, and clothed with all the rights and immunities which the Constitution and laws of the State attached to that character."

This meant that "no State can, by any Act or law of its own, passed since the adoption of the federal Constitution, introduce a new member into the political community created by the Constitution of the United States." The only relevant question, therefore, was whether, at the time the Constitution was ratified, Scott could have been considered a citizen of any state within the meaning of Article III.

According to the Supreme Court, the drafters of the Constitution had viewed all African-Americans as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

The Supreme Court also presented a parade of horribles, describing the feared results of granting Mr. Scott's petition: "It would give to persons of the negro race, …the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went." Scott was not a citizen of Missouri, and the federal courts therefore lacked jurisdiction to hear the dispute.

Despite the conclusion that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction, however, it went on to hold that Dred Scott was not a free man, even though he had resided for a time in Minnesota, because the provisions of the Missouri Compromise declaring it to be free territory were beyond Congress's power to enact. The Supreme Court rested its decision on the ground that Congress's power to acquire territories and create governments within those territories was limited, and that the Fifth Amendment barred any law that would deprive a slaveholder of his property, such as his slaves, because he had brought them into a free territory. The Supreme Court went on to state — although the issue was not before the Court — that the territorial legislatures had no power to ban slavery.

This was only the second time that the Supreme Court had found an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional. (The first time was 54 years earlier in Marbury v. Madison). Associate Justice Benjamin R. Curtis, in dissent, attacked that part of the Court's decision as obiter dicta, on the ground that once the Court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case its only recourse was to dismiss the action, not to pass judgment on the merits of his claims. The dissents by Curtis and McLean also attacked the Court's overturning of the Missouri Compromise on its merits, noting both that it was not necessary to decide the question, and also that none of the Framers of the Constitution had ever objected on constitutional grounds to the United States Congress' adoption of the anti-slavery provisions of the Northwest Ordinance passed by the Continental Congress, or the subsequent Acts that barred slavery north of 36°-30'. Nor, these justices argued, was there any Constitutional basis for the claim that African-Americans could not be citizens. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, black men could vote in ten of the thirteen states. This made them citizens not only of their states but of the United States.

While this ruling is usually considered in terms of its controversial implications for slavery, the holdings of the case also have important implications for property rights. States do not have the right to claim an individual's property that was fairly theirs in another state. Property cannot cease to exist as a result of changing jurisdiction. This interpretation, common to court justices, is often overlooked and interpreted to strictly refer to slavery.

The decision was a culmination of what many at that time considered a push to expand slavery. The expansion of the territories and resulting admission of new states meant that the longstanding Missouri Compromise would cause the loss of political power in the North as many of the new states would be admitted as slave states. Thus, Democratic Party politicians sought repeal of the Missouri Compromise and were finally successful in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which naturally ended the "compromise." This Act permitted each newly admitted state south of the 40th parallel to decide whether to be a slave state or free state. Now, with Dred Scott, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Taney sought to permit the unhindered expansion of slavery into the territories.

Although Chief Justice Taney believed that the decision would settle the slavery question once and for all, it produced the opposite result. It strengthened the opposition to slavery in the North, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make even bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.

Many abolitionists and some supporters of slavery believed that Chief Justice Taney was prepared to rule, as soon as the issue was presented in a subsequent case, that the states had no power to prohibit slavery within their borders and that state laws providing for the emancipation of slaves brought into their territory or forbidding the institution of slavery were likewise unconstitutional.

Abraham Lincoln stressed this danger during his famous "House Divided" speech at Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858:

"Put this and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a State to exclude slavery from its limits. …We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State."

That fear of the "next" Dred Scott decision shocked many in the North who had been content to accept slavery as long as it was confined within its present borders.

It also put the Northern Democrats, such as Stephen A. Douglas, in a difficult position. The Northern wing of the Democratic Party had supported the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 under the banner of "popular sovereignty," arguing that even if Congress did not bar the expansion of slavery into those territories, the residents of those territories could prohibit it by territorial legislation. The Dred Scott decision squarely stated that they could not — even though, strictly speaking, that issue was not before the Court.

Douglas attempted to overcome that obstacle, without challenging the Supreme Court's decision directly, by his Freeport Doctrine. Douglas insisted that, even if a territory could not bar slavery outright, the institution could not take root without local police regulations to protect it. While this doctrine may have allayed Northern Democrats' fears, it was wholly unacceptable to Southern Democrats, who reached a different conclusion from the same premise. As they argued, if hostile territorial governments could obstruct their right to bring their slaves into a territory by refusing to protect that right, then Congress must intervene to pass a federal slave code for all the territories. They often coupled this with threats to secede if Congress did not comply.

At the same time, Democrats characterized Republicans as lawless rebels, provoking disunion by their unwillingness to accept the Supreme Court's decision as the law of the land. Many Northern opponents of slavery had offered a legalistic argument for refusing to recognize the Dred Scott decision as binding. As they noted, the Supreme Court's decision began with the proposition that the federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case because he was not a citizen of the state of Missouri. Therefore, so the opponents argued, the remainder of the decision concerning the Missouri Compromise was unnecessary (i.e., beyond the Court's power to decide) and invalid (i.e., obiter dictum).

Douglas attacked this position in the Lincoln–Douglas debates:

"Mr. Lincoln goes for a warfare upon the Supreme Court of the United States, because of their judicial decision in the Dred Scott case. I yield obedience to the decisions in that court—to the final determination of the highest judicial tribunal known to our constitution."

Southern supporters of slavery went further, claiming that the decision was essential to the preservation of the union. As the Richmond Enquirer stated:

"Thus has a politico-legal question, involving others of deep import, been decided emphatically in favor of the advocates and supporters of the Constitution and the Union, the equality of the States and the rights of the South, in contra-distinction to and in repudiation of the diabolical doctrines inculcated by factionists and fanatics; and that too by a tribunal of jurists, as learned, impartial and unprejudiced as perhaps the world has ever seen. A prize, for which the athletes of the nation have often wrestled in the halls of Congress, has been awarded at last, by the proper umpire, to those who have justly won it. The "nation" has achieved a triumph, "sectionalism" has been rebuked, and abolitionism has been staggered and stunned. Another supporting pillar has been added to our institutions; the assailants of the South and enemies of the Union have been driven from their "point d'appui"; a patriotic principle has been pronounced; a great, national, conservative, union saving sentiment has been proclaimed."

But while some supporters of slavery treated the decision as a vindication of their rights within the Union, others treated it as merely a step to spreading slavery throughout the nation, as the Republicans claimed. Convinced that any restrictions on their right to own slaves and to take them anywhere they chose were unlawful, they boasted that the coming decade would see slave auctions on Boston Common. These Southern radicals were ready to split the Democratic Party and — as events showed — the nation on that principle.

Frederick Douglass, a prominent African-American abolitionist who thought the decision unconstitutional and the Chief Justice's reasoning inapposite to the founders' vision, recognized that political conflict could not be avoided.

"The highest authority has spoken. The voice of the Supreme Court has gone out over the troubled waves of the National Conscience. But my hopes were never brighter than now. I have no fear that the National Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous issue of lies." 


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