|Dred Scott v. Sandford|
|Argued February 11-14, 1856|
Reargued December 15-18, 1856
Decided March 6, 1857
|Full case name||Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford|
|Citations||60 U.S. 393 (more)|
|Prior history||Judgment for defendant, C.C.D. Mo.|
|Judgment reversed and suit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. |
|Majority||Taney, joined by Wayne, Catron, Daniel, Nelson, Grier, Campbell|
|Concurrence||Nelson, joined by Grier|
|U.S. Const. amend. V; Missouri Compromise|
|U.S. Const. amends. XIII, XIV, XV;|
Civil Rights Act of 1866
|Kleppe v. New Mexico (1976) (in part)|
Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857), also known as the Dred Scott case or Dred Scott decision, was a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court on U.S. labor law and constitutional law. It held that "a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves," whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen, and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court, and that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States. Dred Scott, an enslaved man of "the negro African race" who had been taken by his owners to free states and territories, attempted to sue for his freedom. In a 7-2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the court denied Scott's request. The decision was only the second time that the Supreme Court had ruled an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional.
Although Taney hoped that his ruling would settle the slavery question, the decision immediately spurred vehement dissent from anti-slavery elements in the North and proved to be an indirect catalyst for the American Civil War. It was functionally superseded by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1868, which gave African Americans full citizenship.
The Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford is largely denounced by modern scholars. Many contemporary lawyers, and most modern legal scholars, consider the ruling regarding slavery in the territories to be obiter dictum and not a binding precedent. Bernard Schwartz says it "stands first in any list of the worst Supreme Court decisions--Chief Justice C. E. Hughes called it the Court's greatest self-inflicted wound."Junius P. Rodriguez says it is "universally condemned as the U.S. Supreme Court's worst decision." Historian David Thomas Konig says it was "unquestionably, our court's worst decision ever."
Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia in 1795. Little is known of his early years. His owner, Peter Blow, moved to Alabama in 1818, taking his six slaves along to work a farm near Huntsville. In 1830, Blow gave up farming and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he sold Scott to U.S. Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson. After purchasing Scott, Emerson took him to Fort Armstrong in Illinois. A free state, Illinois had been free as a territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and had prohibited slavery in its constitution in 1819 when it was admitted as a state.
In 1836, Emerson moved with Scott from Illinois to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin territory in what has become the state of Minnesota. Slavery in the Wisconsin Territory (some of which, including Fort Snelling, was part of the Louisiana Purchase) was prohibited by the United States Congress under the Missouri Compromise. During his stay at Fort Snelling, Scott married Harriet Robinson in a civil ceremony by Harriet's owner, Major Lawrence Taliaferro, a justice of the peace who was also an Indian agent. The ceremony would have been unnecessary had Dred Scott been a slave, as slave marriages had no recognition in the law.
In 1837, the army ordered Emerson to Jefferson Barracks Military Post, south of St. Louis, Missouri. Emerson left Scott and his wife at Fort Snelling, where he leased their services out for profit. By hiring Scott out in a free state, Emerson was effectively bringing the institution of slavery into a free state, which was a direct violation of the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Wisconsin Enabling Act.
Before the end of the year, the army reassigned Emerson to Fort Jesup in Louisiana, where Emerson married Eliza Irene Sanford in February, 1838. Emerson sent for Scott and Harriet, who proceeded to Louisiana to serve their master and his wife. While en route to Louisiana, Scott's daughter Eliza was born on a steamboat underway on the Mississippi River between Illinois and what would become Iowa. Because Eliza was born in free territory, she was technically born as a free person under both federal and state laws. Upon entering Louisiana, the Scotts could have sued for their freedom, but did not. Finkelman suggests that in all likelihood, the Scotts would have been granted their freedom by a Louisiana court, as it had respected laws of free states that slaveholders forfeited their right to slaves if they brought them in for extended periods. This had been the holding in Louisiana state courts for more than 20 years.
Toward the end of 1838, the army reassigned Emerson to Fort Snelling. By 1840, Emerson's wife Irene returned to St. Louis with their slaves, while Dr. Emerson served in the Seminole War. While in St. Louis, she hired them out. In 1842, Emerson left the army. After he died in the Iowa Territory in 1843, his widow Irene inherited his estate, including the Scotts. For three years after John Emerson's death, she continued to lease out the Scotts as hired slaves. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his and his family's freedom, but Irene Emerson refused, prompting Scott to resort to legal recourse.
Having been unsuccessful in his attempt to purchase freedom for his family and himself, and with the help of abolitionist legal advisers, Scott sued Emerson for his freedom in a Missouri court in 1846. Scott received financial assistance for his case from the family of his previous owner, Peter Blow. Blow's daughter Charlotte was married to Joseph Charless, an officer at the Bank of Missouri. Charless signed the legal documents as security for Dred Scott and secured the services of the bank's attorney, Samuel Mansfield Bay, for the trial.
Scott based his legal argument on precedents such as Somersett v. Stewart, Winny v. Whitesides, and Rachel v. Walker, claiming his presence and residence in free territories required his emancipation. Scott's lawyers argued the same for Scott's wife, and further claimed that Eliza Scott's birth on a steamboat between a free state and a free territory had made her free upon birth.
It was expected that the Scotts would win their freedom with relative ease, since Missouri courts had previously heard more than ten other cases in which they had freed slaves who had been taken into free territory. Furthermore, the case had been assigned to Judge Alexander Hamilton, who was known to be sympathetic to slave freedom suits. Scott was represented by three lawyers during the course of the case because it was over a year from the time of the original petition filing to the trial. His first lawyer was Francis B. Murdoch, who was replaced by Charles D. Drake. When Drake left St. Louis in 1847, Samuel M. Bay took over as Scott's lawyer. In June 1847, Scott lost his case due to a technicality: Scott had not proven that he was actually enslaved by Irene Emerson. At the trial, grocer Samuel Russell had testified that he was leasing Scott from Irene Emerson, but on cross-examination he admitted that the leasing arrangements had actually been made by his wife Adeline. Thus, Russell's testimony was ruled hearsay and the jury returned a verdict for Emerson.
In December 1847, Judge Hamilton granted Scott a new trial. Emerson appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Missouri, which affirmed the trial court's order in 1848. Due to a major fire, a cholera epidemic, and two continuances, the new trial did not begin until January 1850. While the case awaited trial, Scott and his family were placed in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff, who continued to lease out the services of Scott and his family. The proceeds were placed in escrow, to be paid to Scott's owner or himself upon resolution of the case.
In the 1850 trial, Scott was represented by Alexander P. Field and David N. Hall, both of whom had previously shared offices with Charles Edmund LaBeaume, the brother of Peter Blow's daughter-in-law. The hearsay problem was surmounted by a deposition from Adeline Russell, stating that she had leased the Scotts from Emerson. The jury found in favor of Scott and his family. Unwilling to accept the loss of four slaves and a substantial escrow account, Emerson appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, although by that point she had moved to Massachusetts and transferred ownership of Scott to her brother, John F. A. Sanford.
In November 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision, holding that the Scotts were still legally slaves and that they should have sued for freedom while living in a free state. Chief Justice William Scott declared:
Times are not now as they were when the former decisions on this subject were made. Since then not only individuals but States have been possessed with a dark and fell spirit in relation to slavery, whose gratification is sought in the pursuit of measures, whose inevitable consequences must be the overthrow and destruction of our government. Under such circumstances it does not behoove the State of Missouri to show the least countenance to any measure which might gratify this spirit. She is willing to assume her full responsibility for the existence of slavery within her limits, nor does she seek to share or divide it with others.
At this point, the case looked hopeless, and the Blow family decided that they could no longer pay for Scott's legal costs. Scott also lost both of his lawyers, as Alexander Field had moved to Louisiana and David Hall had died. The case was now undertaken pro bono by Roswell Field, whose office employed Dred Scott as a janitor. Field also discussed the case with LaBeaume, who had taken over the lease on the Scotts in 1851. Following the Missouri Supreme Court decision, Judge Hamilton turned down a request by Emerson's lawyers to release the rent payments from escrow and to deliver the slaves into their owner's custody.
In 1853, Dred Scott again sued his current owner, John Sanford, but now in federal court. Sanford had returned to New York, so the federal courts now had diversity jurisdiction under Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. In addition to the existing complaints, Scott also alleged that Sanford had assaulted his family and held them captive for six hours on January 1, 1853.
At trial in 1854, Judge Robert William Wells directed the jury to rely on Missouri law to settle the question of Scott's freedom. Since the Missouri Supreme Court had held that Scott remained a slave, the jury found in favor of Sanford. Scott then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case was recorded as Dred Scott v. Sandford and entered history with that title. Scott was represented before the Supreme Court by Montgomery Blair and George Ticknor Curtis, whose brother Benjamin was a Supreme Court Justice. Sanford was represented by Reverdy Johnson and Henry S. Geyer.
Historians discovered that after the Supreme Court had heard arguments in the case but before it had issued a ruling, President-elect James Buchanan wrote to his friend, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Catron, asking whether the case would be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court before his inauguration in March 1857. Buchanan hoped the decision would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a ruling that put the future of slavery beyond the realm of political debate.
Buchanan later successfully pressured Associate Justice Robert Cooper Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority in Dred Scott to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines. Both by present-day standards and under the more lenient standards of the time, Buchanan's applying such political pressure to a member of a sitting court would be regarded as highly improper. Republicans fueled speculation as to Buchanan's influence by publicizing that Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had secretly informed Buchanan of the decision before Buchanan declared, in his inaugural address, that the slavery question would "be speedily and finally settled" by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott in a 7-2 decision that fills over 200 pages in the United States Reports. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, began with a statement of what it saw as the core issue in the case:
The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied [sic] by that instrument to the citizen?-- Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. at 403.
In answer, the Court ruled that they could not. The Court held that slaves were not American citizens, and therefore a lawsuit to which they were a party could never qualify for the "diversity of citizenship" that Article III of the United States Constitution requires for an American federal court to be able to exercise jurisdiction over a case. Taney based the majority's opinion around a set of historical notions and assertions, and did not provide much actual legal reasoning for the Court's conclusions. His primary rationale for the decision was his claim that black African slaves and their descendants were never intended to be part of the American social and political landscape.
We think [...] that [black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.-- Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. at 404-05.
Taney then spent many pages reviewing the laws of various American States that involved the status of black Americans at the time of the Constitution's creation in 1787. He concluded that these laws showed that a "perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery." Thus, he concluded, black people were not American citizens, and could not sue as citizens in federal courts.
After concluding that the Court had no jurisdiction over Dred Scott's case because he was not a citizen, Taney continued further and struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional. Taney wrote that the Compromise's legal provisions would free slaves who were living north of the 36°N latitude line in the western territories. However, in the Court's judgment, this would constitute the government "taking" slaveowners' property from them without due process of law, which is forbidden under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. It also reasoned that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights implicitly precluded any possibility of constitutional rights for black African slaves and their descendants. Taney concluded:
Now, [...] the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. [...] Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the [36°N 36' latitude] line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void.-- Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. at 451-52.
Technically, Associate Justice Samuel Nelson did not concur in the judgment of the Supreme Court, for the formal judgment of that court was that "the judgment [of the Circuit Court] for the defendant ... be reversed, and a mandate issued directing the suit [of plaintiff Scott] to be dismissed for want of jurisdiction", 60 U.S. at 454, whereas Nelson would have affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court, 60 U.S. at 469. However, in terms of the practical effect on Scott and his family, it was immaterial as to whether his case was to be dismissed, as ordered by the Supreme Court, or the judgment declaring on the merits that they were all still slaves be affirmed, as Nelson would have held. However, the legal theories of Nelson and the court were very different. Nelson expressly declined to address the jurisdictional issue, but instead addressed the merits of Scott's case.
The Supreme Court, which addressed the merits in dictum, expressed the view that the federal statute which had prohibited slavery in the "Territory of Upper Louisiana" was unconstitutional. (At the time of Scott's sojourn this area was administered as the Wisconsin Territory. The term "Territory of Upper Louisiana" was used in Nelson's opinion and the formal Statement of the Case. However, that was the name used for the area during French administration, not the American administration.) Nelson found it unnecessary to reach this constitutional issue. To Nelson, the merits properly turned on a principle of states' rights. He assumed for purposes of argument that Scott might have been emancipated during his sojourn in Illinois and/or his sojourn in Upper Louisiana. In Nelson's view, however, each state that permitted slavery had the constitutional right to determine what effect it would give to any emancipation that might have occurred elsewhere once the Negro person had returned to that state.
A state might, as the State of Louisiana did for a period by court decision, decide to honor extraterritorial emancipation; or a state might, as the State of Missouri did when its Supreme Court reversed Scott's initial victory in the Missouri court, decide to nullify any extraterritorial emancipation and revive the slave status. Since the State of Missouri had clearly determined that it considered Scott still to be a slave, irrespective of any prior emancipation, that foreclosed the issue for Nelson, and the federal Circuit Court properly found him and his family to be slaves while they were in Missouri.
Justice John McLean dissented, writing that there was no basis for the claim that blacks could not be citizens. At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, black men could vote in five of the thirteen states. This made them citizens not only of their states but of the United States. Therefore, Justice McLean concluded that the argument that Scott was not a citizen was "more a matter of taste than of law". In his dissent, Justice McLean cited as precedent Marie Louise v. Marot, an 1835 case in which Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice George Mathews Jr. ruled that "being free for one moment in France, it was not in the power of her former owner to reduce her again to slavery."
Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, in dissent, attacked much of the Supreme Court's decision as obiter dicta, on the ground that once the court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case, it must simply dismiss the action, and not pass judgment on the merits of the claims. The dissents by Curtis and McLean also attacked the court's overturning of the Missouri Compromise on its merits, noting both that it was not necessary to decide the question, and also that none of the authors of the Constitution had ever objected on constitutional grounds to the United States Congress' adoption of the antislavery provisions of the Northwest Ordinance passed by the Continental Congress, or the subsequent acts that barred slavery north of 36°30' N.
Perhaps the most immediate business consequence of the decision was to help trigger the Panic of 1857. Economist Charles Calomiris and historian Larry Schweikart discovered that uncertainty about whether the entire West would suddenly become either slave territory or engulfed in combat like "Bleeding Kansas", immediately gripped the markets. The east-west railroads collapsed immediately (although north-south-running lines were unaffected), causing, in turn, the near-collapse of several large banks and the runs that ensued. What followed these runs has been called the Panic of 1857.
It differed sharply from the Panic of 1837, in that its effects were almost exclusively confined to the North. Calomiris and Schweikart found this resulted from the South's superior system of branch banking (as opposed to the North's unit banking system), in which the transmission of the panic was minor due to the diversification of the southern branch banking systems. Information moved reliably among the branch banks, whereas in the North, the unit banks (competitors) seldom shared such vital information.
The decision was hailed in Southern slaveholding society as a proper interpretation of the United States Constitution. According to Jefferson Davis, then a United States Senator from Mississippi, and later President of the Confederate States of America, the Dred Scott case was merely a question of "whether Cuffee should be kept in his normal condition or not". At that time, "Cuffee" was a common slave name and there often used to refer to a black person, as slavery was a racial caste.
Prior to Dred Scott, Democratic Party politicians had sought repeal of the Missouri Compromise. They were finally successful in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act permitted each newly admitted state south of the 40th parallel to vote as to whether to be a slave state or free state. With Dred Scott, the Supreme Court under Taney permitted the unhindered expansion of slavery into all the territories.
The Dred Scott decision, then, represented a culmination of what many at that time considered a push to expand slavery. Southerners at the time, who had grown uncomfortable with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, argued that they had a right, under the federal constitution, to bring slaves into the territories, regardless of any decision by a territorial legislature on the subject. The Dred Scott decision seemed to endorse that view. The expansion of slavery into the territories and resulting admission of new states would mean a loss of political power for the North, as many of the new states would be admitted as slave states. Counting three-fifths of the slave population for apportionment would add to the slave holding states' political representation in Congress.
Although Taney believed that the decision represented a compromise that would settle the slavery question once and for all by transforming a contested political issue into a matter of settled law, it produced the opposite result. It strengthened Northern opposition to slavery, divided the Democratic Party on sectional lines, encouraged secessionist elements among Southern supporters of slavery to make bolder demands, and strengthened the Republican Party.
Opponents of slavery fiercely attacked the Dred Scott decision. The Evening Journal of Albany, New York, combined two themes and denounced the decision as both an offense to the principles of liberty on which the nation was founded, and a victory for slave states over the free states:
The three hundred and forty-seven thousand five hundred and twenty-five Slaveholders in the Republic, accomplished day before yesterday a great success--as shallow men estimate success. They converted the Supreme Court of Law and Equity of the United States of America into a propagandist of human Slavery. Fatal day for a judiciary made reputable throughout the world, and reliable to all in this nation, by the learning and the virtues of Jay, Rutledge, Ellsworth, Marshall and Story!
The conspiracy is nearly completed. The Legislation of the Republic is in the hands of this handful of Slaveholders. The United States Senate assures it to them. The Executive power of the Government is theirs. Buchanan took the oath of fealty to them on the steps of the Capitol last Wednesday. The body which gives the supreme law of the land, has just acceded to their demands, and dared to declare that under the charter of the Nation, men of African descent are not citizens of the United States and can not be--that the Ordinance of 1787 was void--that human Slavery is not a local thing, but pursues its victims to free soil, clings to them wherever they go, and returns with them--that the American Congress has no power to prevent the enslavement of men in the National Territories--that the inhabitants themselves of the Territories have no power to exclude human bondage from their midst--and that men of color can not be suitors for justice in the Courts of the United States!
That editorial ended on a martial note:
All who love Republican institutions and who hate Aristocracy, compact yourselves together for the struggle which threatens your liberty and will test your manhood!
Many abolitionists and some supporters of slavery believed that Taney was prepared to rule, as soon as the issue was presented in a subsequent case, as for instance, Lemmon v. New York, that the states had no power to prohibit slavery within their borders and that state laws providing for the emancipation of slaves brought into their territory or forbidding the institution of slavery were likewise unconstitutional. Abraham Lincoln stressed this danger during his "House Divided" speech at Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858:
Put this and that together, and we have another nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a State to exclude slavery from its limits ... We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free, and we shall awake to the reality instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State.
That fear of the next Dred Scott decision shocked many in the North who had been content to accept slavery as long as it was confined within its then present borders. It also put the Northern Democrats, such as Stephen A. Douglas, in a difficult position. The Northern wing of the Democratic Party had supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 under the banner of popular sovereignty. They argued that even if Congress did not bar the expansion of slavery into those territories, the residents of those territories could prohibit it by territorial legislation. The Dred Scott decision squarely stated that they could not exercise such prohibition, even though, strictly speaking, that issue was not before the Supreme Court.
Without challenging the court's decision directly, Douglas attempted to overcome that obstacle by creating his Freeport Doctrine. Douglas insisted that, even if a territory could not bar slavery outright, the institution could not take root without local police regulations to protect it and a territory could refuse to pass such local support.
This doctrine was wholly unacceptable to Southern Democrats, who reached a different conclusion from the same premise. They argued that if hostile territorial governments could obstruct their right to bring their slaves into a territory by refusing to protect that right, then Congress must intervene to pass a federal slave code for all the territories. They often coupled this position with threats to secede if Congress did not comply.
At the same time, Democrats characterized Republicans as lawless rebels, provoking disunion by their unwillingness to accept the Supreme Court's decision as the law of the land. Many Northern opponents of slavery offered a legalistic argument for refusing to recognize the Dred Scott decision as binding. As they noted, the Supreme Court's decision began with the proposition that the federal courts did not have jurisdiction to hear Scott's case because he was not a citizen of the State of Missouri. Therefore, so the opponents argued, the remainder of the decision concerning the Missouri Compromise was unnecessary (i.e., beyond the court's power to decide) and therefore a passing remark rather than an authoritative interpretation of the law (i.e., obiter dictum). Douglas attacked this position in the Lincoln-Douglas debates:
Mr. Lincoln goes for a warfare upon the Supreme Court of the United States, because of their judicial decision in the Dred Scott case. I yield obedience to the decisions in that court--to the final determination of the highest judicial tribunal known to our constitution.
Democrats had previously refused to accept the court's interpretation of the Constitution as permanently binding. During the Jackson administration, Roger B. Taney, working as Attorney General, wrote :
Whatever may be the force of the decision of the Supreme Court in binding the parties and settling their rights in the particular case before them, I am not prepared to admit that a construction given to the constitution by the Supreme Court in deciding any one or more cases fixes of itself irrevokably [sic] and permanently its construction in that particular and binds the states and the Legislative and executive branches of the General government, forever afterwards to conform to it and adopt it in every other case as the true reading of the instrument although all of them may unite in believing it erroneous.
Southern supporters of slavery claimed that the Dred Scott decision was essential to the preservation of the union. As the Richmond Enquirer stated:
Thus has a politico-legal question, involving others of deep import, been decided emphatically in favor of the advocates and supporters of the Constitution and the Union, the equality of the States and the rights of the South, in contradistinction to and in repudiation of the diabolical doctrines inculcated by factionists and fanatics; and that too by a tribunal of jurists, as learned, impartial and unprejudiced as perhaps the world has ever seen. A prize, for which the athletes of the nation have often wrestled in the halls of Congress, has been awarded at last, by the proper umpire, to those who have justly won it. The "nation" has achieved a triumph, "sectionalism" has been rebuked, and abolitionism has been staggered and stunned. Another supporting pillar has been added to our institutions; the assailants of the South and enemies of the Union have been driven from their point d'appui; a patriotic principle has been pronounced; a great, national, conservative, union saving sentiment has been proclaimed.
While some supporters of slavery treated the decision as a vindication of their rights within the union, others treated it as merely a step to spreading slavery throughout the nation, as the Republicans claimed. Convinced that any restrictions on their right to own slaves and to take them anywhere they chose were unlawful, they boasted that the coming decade would see slave auctions on Boston Common. These Southern radicals were ready to split the Democratic Party and--as events showed--the nation on that principle.
Frederick Douglass, a prominent African-American abolitionist who thought the decision unconstitutional and the Chief Justice's reasoning contrary to the founders' vision, prophesied that political conflict could not be avoided:
The highest authority has spoken. The voice of the Supreme Court has gone out over the troubled waves of the National Conscience ... [But] my hopes were never brighter than now. I have no fear that the National Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous tissue of lies ...
Irene Emerson had moved to Massachusetts in 1850 and married Calvin C. Chaffee, a doctor and abolitionist who was elected to Congress on the Know Nothing and Republican tickets. Following the Supreme Court ruling, proslavery newspapers attacked Chaffee as a hypocrite. Chaffee protested that Dred Scott belonged to his brother-in law and that he had nothing to do with Scott's enslavement. Nevertheless, the Chaffees executed a deed transferring the Scott family to Taylor Blow, son of Scott's former owner Peter Blow. Field suggested the transfer to Chaffee as the most convenient way of freeing Scott, as Missouri law required manumitters to appear in person before the court.
Taylor Blow filed the manumission papers with Judge Hamilton on May 26, 1857. The emancipation of Dred Scott and his family was national news and was celebrated in northern cities. Scott worked as a porter in a hotel in St. Louis, where he was a minor celebrity. His wife took in laundry.
Dred Scott died of tuberculosis only 18 months after attaining freedom, on November 7, 1858. Harriet died on June 17, 1876.
When the case was filed, the two sides agreed on a statement of facts that claimed Scott had been sold by Dr. Emerson to John Sanford. However, this was a legal fiction. Dr. Emerson had died in 1843, and Dred Scott had filed his 1847 suit against Irene Emerson. There is no record of Dred Scott's transfer to Sanford, or of his transfer back to Irene Chaffee. John Sanford died shortly before Scott's manumission, but Scott is not listed in the probate records of Sanford's estate. Nor was Sanford acting as Dr. Emerson's executor, as he was never appointed by a probate court, and the Emerson estate had already been settled by the time the federal case was filed.
Because of the murky circumstances surrounding ownership, it has been suggested that the parties to Dred Scott v. Sandford contrived to create a test case. Mrs. Emerson's remarriage to an abolitionist Congressman seemed suspicious to contemporaries, and Sanford seemed to be a front who allowed himself to be sued despite not actually being Scott's owner. However, Sanford had been involved in the case since 1847, before his sister married Chaffee. He had secured counsel for his sister in the state case, and he engaged the same lawyer for his own defense in the federal case. Sanford also consented to be represented by genuine pro-slavery advocates before the Supreme Court, rather than putting up a token defense.
Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenting vote in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which declared racial segregation constitutional and created the concept of "separate but equal". In his dissent, Harlan wrote that the majority's opinion would "prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case".
In a memo to Justice Robert H. Jackson in 1952 (for whom he was clerking at the time) on the subject of Brown v. Board of Education, future Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that "Scott v. Sandford was the result of Taney's effort to protect slaveholders from legislative interference."
Dred Scott ... rested upon the concept of "substantive due process" that the Court praises and employs today. Indeed, Dred Scott was very possibly the first application of substantive due process in the Supreme Court, the original precedent for ... Roe v. Wade.
Scalia noted that the Dred Scott decision, written and championed by Taney, left the justice's reputation irrevocably tarnished. Taney, while attempting to end the disruptive question of the future of slavery, wrote a decision that aggravated sectional tensions and was considered to contribute to the American Civil War.
Chief Justice John Roberts compared Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) to the Dred Scott case, as another example of trying to settle a contentious issue through a ruling that went beyond the scope of the Constitution.
Attendees get their first look after the unveiling of the new Dred and Harriet Scott statue on the grounds of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis on Friday, June 8, 2012.