Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom in the slave state of Missouri based on a law that determined slavery status depending on time spent in free states. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and further escalated the already deep tensions throughout the nation regarding slavery. His story is exhausting but reminds everyone that the road to freedom, dignity, and liberty is often lined with many obstacles.
Scott was born into slavery in Virginia in 1799. His owner eventually moved to St. Louis and sold Scott to a surgeon with the U.S. Army. The doctor, John Emerson, spent four years at army posts in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin. During that time, Scott married Harriet Robinson and Emerson married Eliza Sanford. Emerson died a few years after the family returned to Missouri which meant that the slaves became the property of his widow.
In 1846, three years after Emerson’s death, Scott offered to purchase his family’s freedom from the widow but she refused. He filed a lawsuit that same year in the St. Louis Circuit Court and the trial took place in 1847 at the Old Courthouse (which is now part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). His argument was based on a Missouri state law referred to as “once free, always free” that said if a slave spent a prolonged period of time in a free state, the slave would continue to be free after returning to Missouri.
This not only applied to Scott but also to his wife. The two were married while in an anti-slavery location, they lived there for a few years, and their first child, a girl, was born on the boat between Illinois and Missouri, between a free state and slave state. However, the outcome ruled against Scott due to insufficient proof that he was owned by the Emerson’s widow and so that testimony was regarded as “hearsay.”
The judge who presided over the original trial called for a retrial that was held in 1850. Evidence included documented proof that Scott was owned by the doctor’s widow. The jury sided with Scott: he now had his freedom, at least for awhile. The widow filed an appeal. The Missouri Supreme Court reversed the St. Louis Circuit Court’s decision so Scott lost his freedom in 1852.
The widow moved to Massachusetts and transferred ownership of Scott to her brother, John Sanford, in New York. With the parties of the lawsuit living in different states, the case could be tried under federal law. Scott lost in federal district court in 1853 but he took his fight for freedom to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision was handed down on March 6, 1857 by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. According to the majority vote, African descendants, whether free or enslaved, were not considered U.S. citizens. Slaves were seen as property. The majority decision also thought the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had exceeded Congressional powers by prohibiting slavery in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase. The result was that Scott and his wife were not granted their freedom.
Descendants of Scott’s first owner, the one who moved from Virginia to St. Louis, had been financing his legal fees. After the Supreme Court decision, Scott and his family were given to Taylor Blow, a descendant of the first owner. Blow, in turn, freed the Scotts by manumission in May 1857. Scott got a job in a St. Louis hotel but once again faced a short-lived freedom, this time due to illness. He died of tuberculosis in September 1858. Harriet died in 1876.
The Scotts had two daughters. One married and her descendants were present when a bust of Dred Scott was added in 2012 to the Hall of Famous Missourians in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
The entire nation followed his quest for freedom. During the 10 years of lawsuits, awareness and tensions about slavery rose throughout the country. The Dred Scott decision aided public opinion in favor of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that abolished slavery, granted citizenship to those born in the U.S., and no longer prevented citizens from voting based on race, color, or previous status as a slave.
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