The Supreme Court Case That Led to The Civil War | Dred Scott v. Sandford


Mr. Beat presents Supreme Court Briefs St. Louis, Missouri
Some time between 1830 and 1833 Dr. John Emerson, a United States Army surgeon, buys a slave named Dred Scott. Emerson moved around a lot, and he always took Scott with him. In 1836, Emerson moved to Fort Armstrong, Illinois, taking Scott with him of course. Interestingly, Missouri was a state where slavery was legal, but in Illinois it was not. The next year, Emerson moved again, this time to the territory of Wisconsin (which is now in the state of Minnesota), where slavery was also illegal. While there, Dred Scott fell in love and married Harriet Robinson, another slave owned by a dude named Lawrence Taliaferro. Emerson ended up moving back to Missouri again shortly after this, leaving Dred and Harriet behind and leasing them out to other army officers. Well guess what? Emerson fell in love, too. He met a chick named Eliza Irene Sanford, who went by Irene, after he moved down to Louisiana for a bit. Hey I told you he moved a lot. Emerson married Sanford in Louisiana, and soon after asked Dred and Harriet to join him again. Well Harriet was pregnant, and ended up having the baby on the trip down somewhere between Illinois and Wisconsin, in free territory. The Emersons and Scotts returned to Missouri a couple years later. John Emerson died in 1843 and Irene inherited his estate and the Scott family. However, for the next three years, Dred and Harriet Scott were hired out to different people. Dred and Harriet first tried to buy their freedom, but that didn’t work. So on April 6, 1846, the Scotts, with some help from legal advisors, sued Irene Emerson to obtain freedom from slavery. By this time, they had two kids. What’s crazy is that the Scotts were able to pay for it due to the family of Dred Scott’s previous owner helping out. The Scotts went through three lawyers over a 14-month period, but ultimately lost the case due to a technicality. Dred and Harriet Scott could not prove they were actually Irene Emerson’s slaves. However, the Scotts lawyers were able to get them a second trial. Due to a major fire, a cholera epidemic, and several other delays, that trial didn’t begin until January 1850. In this trial, they were able to prove that they were Emerson’s slaves.The jury favored the Scotts, granting them their freedom. Yay! Hold up. Not so fast, Emerson’s lawyers said. After all, Emerson would be losing four slaves, worth a lot of money. Her lawyers asked for a new trial, but they were denied. So then they appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, who reversed the decision, arguing the Scotts were still slaves and they should have sued for freedom when they had the chance back when they lived in a free state. Well dang, so the Scotts were still slaves. But this saga isn’t over yet. Dred Scott sued again, on November 2, 1853, this time in federal court. For this suit, a lawyer named Roswell Field agreed to help free of charge. Except, this time, he wasn’t suing Emerson. He was suing her brother, John Sanford, who now claimed ownership of him. Aw how sweet, she gave him a gift. What a nice sister. Scott also alleged that Sanford assaulted his family. The judge went with Sanford because of the Missouri Supreme Court decision that said the Scotts were still slaves. Field was determined to get this one to the Supreme Court, though, as he wanted to settle the question: “did living in a free state or territory permanently free a slave?” The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, but not until February 1856. Keep in mind this is 10 YEARS after the Scotts first sued for freedom. Just Dred officially filed, with the implication his family would be freed as well if they sided with him. It became known as Dred Scott v. Sandford. Wait…SANDford? Yep, even though John Sanford’s name was, you know, Sanford, a clerk misspelled his name in court records and it stayed that way. The Supreme Court justices argued the case multiple times the rest of the year, finally giving a decision on March 6, 1857. The Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Sanford. One final time, Dred Scott and his family were denied their freedom. The Court ruled that Scott’s case shouldn’t have been even heard under the Constitution, as Scott was not a citizen. It also declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because Congress lacked the power to ban slavery in U.S. territories. It was only the second time the Court had ruled something the Congress did unconstitutional. Justice Roger Taney wrote the majority opinion. “In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people.” Dang, Taney, that’s messed up. The Court also ruled slaves as “property,” adding that the Fifth Amendment prevents Congress from taking property away from individuals without just compensation. Although Taney hoped this ruling would finally settle the slavery controversy, it actually just made things worse. It even caused one justice, justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, to quit the court. The anti-slavery movement in the North grew much bigger due to this ruling. The decision further divided the country, proving to be a major cause of the Civil War. Many historians say what is more commonly known as The Dred Scott Decision is the worst Supreme Court ruling in American history. They especially like to talk trash about Roger Taney, who comes across as a horrible racist with this one. Following the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as the the Civil Rights Act of 1866, all directly overturned the decision. However, Dred Scott never lived to see that. Although it’s not completely a sad ending for him and his family. The Scotts were freed anyway just a couple months after the Supreme Court’s decision. Scott got a job working at a St. Louis hotel where he actually made MONEY. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t get long to enjoy his freedom, as he died the next year. I’ll see you for the next Supreme Court case, jury!

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