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African-American History

African-American history is the part of American history that discusses the Black American or African-American ethnic group. African American refers to black people from the Caribbean who migrated to the U.S. and celebrated their history during Black History Month.

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African-American History
Slavery
US Supreme Court

What was Dred Scott v Sanford about?

Quick Summary

  • Dred Scott and his family (except for his younger daughter, Lizzie) had lived for a significant time in "free" territory, which should have automatically guaranteed their right to emancipation under the "once free, always free" doctrine. Unfortunately, Scott didn't attempt to exercise this option until he and his family were living in Missouri, a slave-holding state.
  • Scott attempted to purchase his family's freedom for $300, but Irene Emerson refused the offer, so Scott sued for their freedom in court, a strategy that had worked for certain other former slaves. The first case against Irene Emerson (Scott v. Emerson, (1847) was dismissed for lack of evidence; by the time the second case was tried (Scott v. Sanford, (1857), Emerson's brother, John Sanford had assumed responsibility for his sister's legal affairs (which is why his name is on the case instead of hers).
  • The case was eventually appealed to the US Supreme Court which, in a 7-2 ruling, held the following:
    • African-Americans could never be citizens of the United States or the individual states.
    • African-Americans were chattel (property) according to the Constitution, and their owners were protected from losing their property under the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause and Due Process Clause, which invalidated the "once free, always free" tradition.
    • Because African-Americans were considered property, and were not legal citizens, they had no right to sue for their freedom.
    • The Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress had overstepped its authority in attempting to regulate states' rights.
    • Citizens' groups were prohibited from establishing anti-slavery territories.

Background

The most famous case before the US Supreme Court for the 1856-57 Term was that of Dred Scott v. Sanford, (1857), the landmark ruling in which a slave, Dred Scott, attempted to sue for his and his family's freedom from the man who claimed ownership over them. Scott was only one of several hundred slaves who sued for freedom under a Missouri law that permitted "any person held in slavery to petition the general court" for his or her freedom. Many cases arose from the person having lived in a state territory where slavery was outlawed, which resulted in emancipation of that person under the state or territory's laws. Common law practice in this era followed the dictum "once free, always free," meaning once a former slave had gained his or her freedom, he or she could not (or was not supposed to) be subjugated to forced indenture in the future.

Dred Scott had been enslaved to a man named Peter Blow, who moved his family and six slaves from Alabama to Missouri in 1830, where he opened a boarding house, the Jefferson Hotel. Sometime after 1830, but before Blow's death in June of 1832 (the Missouri Historical Society found no record of the sale), he sold Scott to John Emerson, a US Army medical doctor stationed in St. Louis, Missouri. Emerson was a known complainer who was not well tolerated by the commanding officers, and endured frequent transfers among various military posts. Scott moved with Emerson.

On November 19, 1833, the two relocated to Fort Armstrong, in Rock Island, Illinois, a "free state" where slavery had been outlawed since the land was part of the federal government's Wisconsin Territories. The Wisconsin Territories were regulated by the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress in 1787, which abolished slavery and required any states split from the territory to abide by this term as a condition of statehood. Dred Scott's presence in Illinois was supposed to guarantee automatically his permanent status as a freeman, even if he relocated to a slave-holding state, under the common law doctrine of the time, "once free, always free." Scott continued in the service of Dr. Emerson; however, it is not known if this was Scott's choice, or simply because he lacked awareness of his options. The two remained at Fort Armstrong for nearly three years

In 1836, Dred Scott accompanied Dr. Emerson to Fort Snelling, in what was then known as the "Upper Louisiana Territory." In 1820, the United States passed the Missouri Compromise, legislation that attempted to balance the conflicting interests of the North and South by allowing slavery to continue in the Southern states, but prohibiting its expansion into the Western and Northwestern Territories. The dividing line was along the 36th parallel (36º30'), which passed through Missouri. As a condition of the "compromise," the entire state of Missouri was permitted to legalize slavery. Fort Snelling was North of the 36th parallel, but, although technically within the state of Missouri, was (and still is) considered an "unorganized territory" on designated free soil that prohibited slavery.

While at Fort Snelling, Dr. Emerson purchased a female slave, Harriet, from a Major Taliaferro. Emerson "permitted" Dred Scott and Harriet to marry in late 1836 or 1837. In October 1837, Emerson was given a brief assignment in St. Louis. Because the weather had already turned cold, parts of the upper Mississippi river were frozen, preventing travel by steamboat. Emerson made the trip alone by canoe, leaving Dred and Harriet in the employ of someone else until he could send for them. Almost immediately, the Army transferred Emerson from St. Louis to Fort Jessup, in Louisianna. While in Louisiana, the doctor met Eliza Irene Sanford (known as Irene), whom he married in February 1838. In April of that year, Emerson sent for Dred and Harriet, who voluntarily traveled hundreds of miles to join the Emersons in a slave state. The four returned to Fort Snelling in October 1838. Enroute, Harriet gave birth to a daughter, Eliza, while on the Steamship Gipsey, on the Mississippi River, north of the 36th parallel and the Missouri state line. The assignment at Fort Snelling lasted until 1840.

In May of 1840, the Army sent Emerson to Florida on a medical mission to care for soldiers fighting in the Seminole War. Concerned for his wife's welfare, Emerson sent Irene to live on her father's plantation, called California, in north St. Louis County and turned guardianship of Dred and Harriet over to him. Alexander Sanford owned four slaves and had no need for Dred's and Harriets' services, and hired them out to locals in Emerson's absence.

John Emerson was honorably discharged from the military in 1842, and returned to St. Louis to start a private medical practice. He was unable to establish a successful business in the city, so he relocated permanently to Davenport, Iowa. On December 29, 1843, Dr. Emerson died of complications from tertiary syphilis, which was untreatable in the era before penicillin. It is unknown whether Dred and Harriet lived with the Emerson family in Iowa or remained behind in St. Louis. Dr. Emerson's Iowa estate (the documentation for which is missing or destroyed) apparently listed an unspecified number of slaves in its inventory, but the St. Louis estate did not.

Irene returned to Missouri, where she and a baby daughter took up residence on her father's plantation. Dred Scott was hired out to Captain Henry Bainbridge, Irene's brother-in-law, then to Samuel Russell, owner of a wholesale grocery store in St. Louis; Harriet and Eliza's disposition during this period is unknown. Harriet gave birth to a second daughter, Lizzie, in 1845.

In 1846, Dred Scott attempted to buy freedom for his wife and family from Irene for $300. The offer was refused, so Scott and Harriet attempted to sue for their emancipation in the St. Louis Circuit Court. [NB: A January 10, 1886, posthumous article about Dred Scott, published in the St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat, claims the Scotts were approached by two attorneys, Burd and Risk, in 1838, and urged to sue Dr. Emerson for their freedom on the grounds that Dred had lived in a free state and territory, and was therefore permitted to sue under Missouri state statute. The article claims Scott lost and was returned to Dr. Emerson. The Missouri Historical Society makes no mention of the attorneys or this earlier case, nor has other supporting documentation been found.]

In the 1847 case Scott v. Emerson, (1847), against Dr. Emerson's widow, Scott claimed Mrs. Emerson was guilty of battery and that she imprisoned him and his family illegally, because they had gained their freedom while living in slave-free areas. Dred and Harriet's first attorney, Francis B. Murdoch, posted the required security on the Scott's behalf, but moved to California before the trail began. At this point, the children of Peter Blow, Scott's owner prior to Dr. Emerson, became involved in the freedom suits, providing both financial and legal assistance.

Samuel Mansfield Bay, a former Missouri legislator and State Attorney General, became the Scott's counsel of record in June 1847. While the judge, Alexander Hamilton, was sympathetic toward emancipation issues, Bay was unable to prove that Mrs. Emerson was holding him as a slave. Taylor Blow, son of Peter Blow, testified that his father had sold Dred Scott to Dr. Emerson. Catherine Scott, wife of a Fort Snelling military officer, also testified that she had hired Harriet while Emerson was stationed in Fort Jessup, Louisiana. Unfortunately, the testimony failed to prove the connection between the Scott family and Irene Scott, who had yet to marry Emerson at the times discussed. Although Samuel Russell, who had hired Scott after the Emersons married, also spoke on the plaintiffs' behalf, his testimony was impeached on a technicality. The jury returned a verdict for Mrs. Emerson.

Bay moved for a new trial at which he planned to present additional witnesses supporting Dred Scott's claims. The motion was granted, but due to errors (Dred Scott's new attorneys, Alexander Field and David Hall, approached the Missouri Supreme Court prematurely, and the case was remanded back to the original court), a heavy court schedule, a fire in the courthouse, and an outbreak of cholera, the trial didn't occur until 1850.

In the interim, the widow Emerson moved to Massachusetts and married Dr. Calvin Chaffee, a prominent abolitionist who won election to Congress shortly after the couple's wedding.

At some point, Irene Emerson (or Chaffee) attempted to distance herself from the legal proceedings, and transferred responsibility for hiring out the Blow family to the county sheriff. Charles Edmund LaBeaume, a St. Louis lawyer and member of the Blow family by marriage, hired the Scotts' in 1851 (they remained with LaBeaume for seven years).

At the second trial, Field and Hall bolstered their case by providing an affidavit from Adeline Russell indicating she had made financial arrangements directly with Irene Emerson for the employ of Dred Scott. With the connection to the plaintiff and respondent established, the jury agreed Dred Scott and his family should be freed under the "once free, always free" doctrine. Sanford appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court judgment by a vote of 2-1 in 1852.

In 1853, friends of the Scott family suggested filing suit in the federal Circuit Court for the District of Missouri under the diversity clause (the diversity clause gives federal courts jurisdiction over cases between citizens of different states). Unfortunately, the Blow family could no longer afford to underwrite Dred Scott's legal expenses. Charles La Beaume took responsibility for filing the case and briefs in federal court himself, and persuaded his friend, Roswell M. Field (no relation to Alexander Field), to argue the case pro bono.

At this point, Irene Emerson Chaffee apparently asked her brother, John Sanford, a New York businessman, to assume responsibility for the case. Sanford claimed to be the rightful owner of the Scott family, having allegedly purchased them directly from the late Dr. Emerson prior to his death. There are no papers or records indicating transfer of ownership, but Sanford may have had standing as executor of Dr. Emerson's estate, despite lying about ownership. Historians speculate Sanford's legal expenses may have been paid by his late wife's family, who were major slave holders in the state of Missouri.

The federal suit was similar in most respects to the original litigation in 1846, except that the Scott's daughters were added as plaintiffs, and the family now requested damages in the amount of $9,000.

The question of citizenship was originally raised in pretrial motions before the federal Circuit Court, when one of Sanford's attorneys, Hugh Garland, argued the court lacked jurisdiction because Dred Scott was not a citizen due to being a "negro of African descent." Field countered that Scott's ethnic heritage did not bar him from citizenship or the right to sue. Since this was an unsettled point of law, the court overruled Sanford, who then pled not guilty to Dred Scott's charges.

Supreme Court Case

The Circuit Court found in favor of Sanford, and Scott's attorney appealed to the US Supreme Court for the 1854 Term. Roswell requested Montgomery Blair, a St. Louis attorney living in Washington, DC, argue Dred Scott's case before the Court.

The question before the Court was distilled to the constitutionality of the "once free, always free" doctrine.

Montgomery Blair (Scott's attorney) argued that freedom based on residence in a free state or territory was permanent, and slavery did not reattach on return to a slave state. This ruling had stood in Missouri until the state supreme court had taken a partisan political stance in its 1852 majority opinion. He also stated that a "Negro of African descent" could be a citizen of the United States.

The respondent's attorneys, Reverdy Johnson and Henry S. Geyer, argued the Congressional authority to relieve a slave-owner of his property in so-called free states and territories was unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause. Their position was that Dred Scott was never free to begin with.

The constitutional issues elevated the Dred Scott case to national prominence, and heightened tension between opposing interests.

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the 7-2 verdict of the Court. The majority held that "A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a "citizen" within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States....Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them. And not being "citizens" within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States, and the Circuit Court has not jurisdiction in such a suit."

Under Taney's interpretation, neither Dred Scott nor any other African-American, had standing to sue for his or her freedom; nor did the federal courts have jurisdiction to hear the cases. [This holding alone was extremely crippling to legal emancipation prior to Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.] Since African-Americans could not be citizens of the United States, the Court reasoned, they could also not claim to be citizens of any of its states or territories, barring them from pursuing justice in the state courts, as well. "The plaintiff having admitted, by his demurrer to the plea in abatement, that his ancestors were imported from Africa and sold as slaves, he is not a citizen of the State of Missouri according to the Constitution of the United States, and was not entitled to sue in that character in the Circuit Court."

Further, Taney declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional as a state's rights issue, claiming Congress had no constitutional authority to restrict slave ownership among the states, or to deprive slave owners of their "property," once the federal territories became states: "The clause in the Constitution authorizing Congress to make all needful rules and regulations for the government of the territory and other property of the United States applies only to territory within the chartered limits of some one of the States when they were colonies of Great Britain, and which was surrendered by the British Government to the old Confederation of the States in the treaty of peace. It does not apply to territory acquired by the present Federal Government by treaty or conquest from a foreign nation."

"During the time it remains a Territory, Congress may legislate over it within the scope of its constitutional powers in relation to citizens of the United States, and may establish a Territorial Government, and the form of the local Government must be regulated by the discretion of Congress, but with powers not exceeding those which Congress itself, by the Constitution, is authorized to exercise over citizens of the United States in respect to the rights of persons or rights of property."

"Congress have no right to prohibit the citizens of any particular State or States from taking up their home there while it permits citizens of other States to do so. Nor has it a right to give privileges to one class of citizens which it refuses to another. The territory is acquired for their equal and common benefit, and if open to any, it must be open to all upon equal and the same terms.

"Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property which the Constitution of the United States recognizes as property.

"The Constitution of the United States recognizes slaves as property, and pledges the Federal Government to protect it. And Congress cannot exercise any more authority over property of that description than it may constitutionally exercise over property of any other kind.

"The act of Congress, therefore, prohibiting a citizen of the United States from taking with him his slaves when he removes to the Territory in question to reside is an exercise of authority over private property which is not warranted by the Constitution, and the removal of the plaintiff by his owner to that Territory gave him no title to freedom."

Taney also put an end to the "once free, always free," doctrine replacing it with a concept more akin to "once owned, always owned," based on Fifth Amendment property protections.

"The plaintiff himself acquired no title to freedom by being taken by his owner to Rock Island, in Illinois, and brought back to Missouri. This court has heretofore decided that thestatus or condition of a person of African descent depended on the laws of the State in which he resided.

"It has been settled by the decisions of the highest court in Missouri that, by the laws of that State, a slave does not become entitled to his freedom where the owner takes him to reside in a State where slavery is not permitted and afterwards brings him back to Missouri."

The Court affirmed the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court and found in favor of Sanford. The seven members voting against Dred Scott were all pro-slavery and had ties to the South.

Justices Curtis and McLean dissented from the ruling, finding no constitutional grounds for prohibiting African-Americans from being citizens of the United States, and finding fault with Taney's contradictory claims that the Court lacked jurisdiction, while simultaneously adjudicating the case. When a court lacks jurisdiction, the case is supposed to be dismissed without a decision.

Taney apparently hoped his ruling would settle the question of slave ownership and reduce mounting tensions between the southern states and northern abolitionists; however, historians often cite the Dred Scott decision as one of the major catalysts to the Civil War.

Epilogue

Dred Scott almost had his happy ending despite the Supreme Court.

Revelation that Congressman Calvin Chaffee's wife, Irene, owned the most famous slave in the United States, brought heavy criticism, both in the press and on the floors of Congress, for the hypocrisy of an abolitionist owning a slave. Chaffee immediately arranged for ownership of the Scott family to be transferred to the late Peter Blow's son, Taylor, who was a resident of Missouri. Under law, only a citizen of Missouri had the right to emancipate a slave in that state.

Irene Chaffee, not satisfied with a nominal payment for the exchange, insisted Blow pay her back wages the Scotts earned during the seven years they lived with Charles LaBeaume, a sum she calculated at $750.00 (this was higher than the Scotts' market value had they been sold publicly). Blow paid the charge without complaint.

May 26, 1857, Taylor Blow took the Scott family to the St. Louis County courthouse and had them emancipated.

Dred Scott found work as a porter at Barnum's St. Louis Hotel, at Second and Walnut Streets in downtown St. Louis, and become something of a local celebrity. Unfortunately, he died of tuberculosis in September 1858, little more than a year after gaining his freedom.

Harriet Scott outlived her husband by 18 years. Eliza Scott died of an unspecified cause at the age of 25, sometime around 1863. Lizzie Scott married and had two sons, only one of whom lived to adulthood.

Case Citation:

Dred Scott v. Sandford*, 60 US 393 (1857)

Although the case is published as Scott v. Sandford, the correct spelling of the defendant's last name was Sanford. The misspelling was the result of a clerical error that went undetected until sometime after the case was published.

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Why was the Dred Scott decision important?

The Dred Scott decision effectively ended the Missouri Compromise, hardening the political rivalry between North and South and paving the way for the Civil War.

It determined slaves were not citizens of either their state of residence or the US, and therefore couldn't bring suit against their "owners" in court. According to Chief Justice Roger Taney, slaves were property, not humans.

The Supreme Court's ruling resulted in major violence, stirring the deep‐seated emotions in the already heated battle of race relations in the United States.

The Dred Scott case played a major role in precipitating the Civil War. The Supreme Court's ruling resulted in major violence, stirring the deep‐seated emotions in the already heated battle of race relations in the United States.

In a 7-2 ruling, the US Supreme Court held the following:

  • African-Americans could never be citizens of the United States or the individual states.
  • African-Americans were chattel (property) according to the Constitution, and their owners were protected from losing their property under the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause and Due Process Clause, which invalidated the "once free, always free" tradition.
  • Because African-Americans were considered property, and were not legal citizens, they had no right to sue for their freedom.
  • The Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress had overstepped its authority in attempting to regulate states' rights.
  • Citizens' groups were prohibited from establishing anti-slavery territories.

Case Citation:

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 US 393 (1857)

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