Legal History: Dred Scott vs. Sandford
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Legal History: Dred Scott vs. Sandford

Dred Scott was an African-American man born as a slave to Peter Blow and his family at the end of the 18th century in Southampton County, Virginia. He is among the most famous slaves in American history because of his series of lawsuits in which he sought freedom for himself, his wife and children. His quest for freedom would take him from the St. Louis Circuit Court in Missouri to the Missouri Supreme Court and finally the United States Supreme Court itself. These lawsuits would culminate in a case known as Dred Scott vs Sandford, the outcome of which is now known as the Dred Scott decision. This decision is widely regarded as the worst decision in the history of the Supreme Court.

The Beginning

The road to the Dred Scott vs Sandford decision began in 1836 when Dred Scott, then a slave of Dr. John Emerson, was taken to Fort Snelling, an outpost in what is now eastern Minnesota. The territory fell under the jurisdiction of the Missouri Compromise and the Wisconsin Enabling Act, both of which made slavery illegal in the area where Scott was relocated to. When Dr. Emerson was deployed elsewhere, he proceeded to compel Scott to work for others as a slave, which meant that he was in violation of the law. According to the law, this made Dred Scott eligible for freedom.

Dred Scott's Fight For Freedom

The first attempt Dred Scott made to achieve his freedom was to try to purchase his and his family's way out of slavery. In April of 1846, three years after Dr. Emerson died, Dred Scott tried to make a deal with Dr. Emerson's widow, Eliza Emerson. The deal was that if he paid her $300, she would set them free. Eliza Emerson was formerly Eliza Sanford before she was married, and it would be her brother, John Sanford, who would become the Sanford in Dred Scott vs Sandford. Eliza Emerson turned down Dred Scott's offer, preferring to keep him as a slave. As a result of this, Scott sought redress in a Missouri court in 1846.

During his first court battle, Dred Scott received financial help from a childhood friend named Henry Taylor Blow, the son of the deceased Peter Blow. The case was based on the fact that their first daughter, Eliza Scott, was born in a free territory, which by Federal law made her a free citizen. Furthermore, both Dred Scott and his wife Harriet had been moved to territories where slavery was not allowed, and the arguments in court contended that this necessitated their freedom. The arguments were based upon precedents, or previous rulings in Missouri courts which upheld automatic emancipation under these conditions. In June of the next year the case was dismissed on a technicality, however the judge then allowed him to escalate it to the Circuit Court where a jury found in his favor in 1850, effectively declaring his family to be emancipated. This first court decision was called the Scott vs Emerson decision and it would be the first of two court decisions leading up to Dred Scott vs Sandford.

After the Circuit Court decision, Eliza Emerson appealed the case to the same court, which refused to hear her appeal. She then appealed to the Missouri State Supreme Court. In the meantime she transferred advocacy, or control of the case, to John Sanford. The case then became Dred Scott vs Sandford, due to a court clerk misspelling, which confused Sanford for Sandford. In 1852 the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the ruling made by the lower court and sent the case back to the Circuit Court, which upheld the reversal two years later in 1854. With this decision meaning a return to slavery, Dred Scott took the case to the United States Supreme Court, which was the only other legal recourse that was available to him. The Supreme Court heard the case in 1856 and issued a decision in March of 1857, shortly after the inauguration of President James Buchanan.

The Dred Scott vs Sandford Case

The decision made by the Supreme Court in 1857 regarding the Dred Scott vs Sandford case, was heavily influenced by politics, and was arguably rigged against Scott from the start. The Supreme Court itself had been previously stacked by pro-slavery justices, including Chief Justice Roger Taney, who did not believe African-Americans were citizens. In addition, James Buchanan, who had just been elected President in 1856, exerted his own influence upon the courts. He both persuaded them to forestall the decision until after his inauguration and convinced one Justice to decide against Scott.

The Supreme Court decided 7-2 in favor of the defendant, John Sanford. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the majority opinion, and the decision in favor of Sanford was joined by associate justices James Wayne, John Catron, Peter Daniel, Samuel Nelson, Robert Grier, and John Campbell. The decision declared that the government could not ban slavery, which invalidated the Missouri Compromise and all related laws as unconstitutional. It also held that African-Americans were “inferior beings”, that Dred Scott had no standing to sue, and ultimately that no African-American, anywhere, could be a United States citizen. Finally, it said that the Due Process clause prevented the Federal government from freeing slaves merely for being taken into slave-free territories. The case was sent to the Circuit Court which was directed to dismiss the case entirely for lack of standing on the part of the plaintiff. The direct effect of the ruling was that Dred Scott and his family would remain slaves and they would no longer be allowed to sue for their freedom. In addition, all African-Americans were stripped of their citizenship, and the court decision freed the practice of slavery to expand into states where slavery was outlawed.

The Parade of Horribles

The intent of the ruling was to end the debate over slavery forever, by means of a Supreme Court decision. Less than a decade after the decision, the debate was settled, although in direct contradiction to how the Court had hoped. The Supreme Court also, as part of its opinion, used the parade of horribles argument, where it explicitly said that if African-Americans were to be judged as citizens, what they deemed horrible and undesirable consequences would ensue, such as African-Americans traveling freely, holding political office, and even carrying firearms. Yet in trying to prevent these “parade of awful consequences,” the court brought about everything it feared, and worse.

Instead of a peaceful resolution, the decision fanned fears that slavery would spread across the country. Land values plummeted in areas where people feared slavery wars would erupt, which also drove down the value of railroad companies. This economic problem swelled until it dovetailed into the already-swelling Panic of 1857, which itself became a worldwide economic crisis. The slavery debate intensified as the Northern populace, those living north and west of the Mason-Dixon line, lost respect for the Supreme Court and considered its judgment to be barbaric. Newspapers in the North and South issued barely veiled calls for war. The citizens of the North, particularly the abolitionists, harbored their own fears of a parade of horribles, such as the possibility that the Taney-led court would rule that states could not abolish slavery, which would bring slavery back to every state in the country. The Southern pro-slavery factions, in the meantime, openly spoke of their desire to spread slavery back across the West and North. Finally, long-simmering talk of secession by the South began to translate into action.

Abraham Lincoln, a Republican politician, used the Dred Scott decision and the resulting fear of the expansion of slavery to propel himself to prominence as his party's Presidential candidate. After Lincoln's election in 1860, the Southern states acted on their threat to secede. Eleven of the Southern states formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 and the United States Civil War began, lasting until 1865. Instead of the Dred Scott ruling sparing America from any further divisions, it helped cause a war that cost more lives than the total of fatalities suffered of any war America has participated in, before or since.

In the end, the Taney court failed to save America from a divisive conflict over slavery. In addition, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution were passed in the aftermath of the war. The Thirteenth Amendment was made to abolish slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment declared that any person born in the United States was a citizen. These two laws brought about the rights of African-Americans to travel freely, hold political office, and own firearms, among many other rights that were granted to all citizens. These were the very consequences that the Taney court explicitly stated that it was trying to prevent. Finally, the Taney court is now infamous for having passed one of the worst judgments in American history.


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