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HMS Civil War Project

An HMS American Cultures collaborative production


external image 220px-DredScott.jpg
Dred Scott (1799 – September 17, 1858), was a slave in the United States who sued unsuccessfully in St. Louis, Missouri for his freedom in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857. His case was based on the fact that he and his wife Harriet Scott were slaves, but he followed his master Dr. John Emerson and had lived in states and territories where slavery was illegal according to the state laws and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, including Illinois and Minnesota (which was then part of the Wisconsin Territory). The United States Supreme Court ruled seven to two against Scott, finding that neither he, nor any person of African [[#|ancestry]], could claim citizenship in the United States, and that therefore Scott could not bring suit in federal court under diversity of citizenship rules. Moreover, Scott's temporary residence outside Missouri did not affect his emancipation under the Missouri Compromise, since reaching that result would deprive Scott's owner of his property.

Dred Scott was born in Southampton County, Virginia, in the 1790s as property of the Peter Blow family. It appears that Scott was originally named Sam and had an older brother named Dred. However, when the brother died as a young man, Scott chose to use his brother's name. The Blow family settled near Huntsville, Alabama, where they unsuccessfully tried farming.
In 1830 the Blow family took Scott with them when they relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. They sold Scott to John Emerson, a doctor serving in the United States Army. Scott traveled with Dr. Emerson as he worked throughout Illinois and the Wisconsin Territories, where the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery.
In 1836 Dred Scott met a teen-aged slave named Harriet Robinson. Her owner was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an American Indian man known for respecting the rights of all people. He allowed them to get married and transferred his ownership of Harriet to Dr. Emerson so that the couple could stay together. In 1838, Harriet gave birth to their first daughter. They named her Eliza. The couple also had two sons; however, they both died in their infancy. Two years after their first daughter arrived, another was born and they named her Lizzie.
Emerson met and married Irene Sanford.[[#cite_note-0|[1]]] They returned to Missouri in 1842. John Emerson died the following year, and John F. A. Sanford, brother of the widow, became executor of the Emerson estate.
In 1846, having failed to attain his freedom, Scott filed suit and went to trial in 1847 in the state courthouse in St. Louis. Scott lost the first trial, but the presiding judge granted a second trial because hearsay evidence had been introduced. Three years later, in 1850, a jury decided that Scott and his wife should be freed. Irene Emerson appealed. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the lower court ruling, saying, "Times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made." The Scotts were returned to their master.
With the aid of new lawyers (including Montgomery Blair), the Scotts sued again in federal court. They lost and appealed to the United States Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford. (His name is spelled 'Sandford' in the court decision due to a clerical error.) On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion, stating that:
  • Any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States, according to the Declaration of Independence.
  • The Ordinance of 1787 could not confer freedom or citizenship within the Northwest Territory to non-white people.
  • The provisions of the Act of 1820, known as the Missouri Compromise, were voided as a legislative act because the act exceeded the powers of Congress, insofar as it attempted to exclude slavery and impart freedom and citizenship to Black people in the northern part of the Louisiana cession.[[#cite_note-1|[2]]]
In effect, the Court ruled that slaves had no claim to freedom. They were property and not citizens, and could not bring suit in federal court. Because slaves were private property, the federal government could not revoke a white slave owner's right to own a slave based on where he lived, thus nullifying the essence of the Missouri Compromise. Taney, speaking for the majority, also ruled that since Scott was considered private property, he was subject to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits taking property from its owner "without due process".

After the ruling, Scott was returned as property to Emerson's widow Irene. Her brother John Sanford had been committed to an insane asylum. In 1850, Irene Sanford Emerson married Calvin C. Chaffee, an abolitionist who shortly after was elected to Congress. Chaffee was apparently unaware that his wife owned arguably the most prominent slave in the United States until a month before the Supreme Court decision. It was too late to intervene, and Chaffee was severely criticized for being involved with a slaveowner. He had his wife Irene return Scott to his original owners, the Blow family. As Missouri residents, they could emancipate him.
Scott was formally freed by Taylor Blow on May 26, 1857 (less than 3 months after the Supreme Court decision). He worked as a porter in St. Louis for less than nine months before he died from tuberculosis in September 1858. He was survived by his wife Harriet and his daughters Eliza and Lizzie Scott. Dred Scott was interred in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. It is a local tradition to place Lincoln pennies on top of his gravestone.[[#cite_note-2|[3]]]
Harriet Scott was long thought to be buried near her husband, but it was recently proven that she was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale, Missouri. She outlived her husband by 18 years, dying on June 17, 1876.[[#cite_note-3|[4]]]

  1. [[#cite_ref-0|^]] Vishneski, John. "What the Court Decided in Dred Scott v. Sandford". The American Journal of Legal History 32(4): 373-390.
  2. [[#cite_ref-1|^]] "Decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Case"
  3. [[#cite_ref-2|^]] "History"
  4. [[#cite_ref-3|^]] "Missouri's Dred Scott Case, 1846-1857", Missouri State Archives, accessed 4 Feb 2010
  5. [[#cite_ref-4|^]] //Dred and Harriet Scott: Their Family Story//, St. Louis Today, KWMU-FM, Interview with author Ruth Ann Hager, 4 Feb 2010, accessed 4 Feb 2010

Information Source(s):
"Dred Scott." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 31 May 2010. <>.

Image Source(s):
"Dred Scott." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 31 May 2010. <>.