Dred Scott: The Man Behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s Worst Decision

Dred ScottMany legal scholars believe the Dred Scott decision was the worst by a U.S. Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes called it the Supreme Court’s “greatest self-inflicted wound.”

But why did it happen? Who was Dred Scott? And why should we know his story? 

DRED SCOTT was born a slave in Virginia (1799). His slave owner took him to Alabama and eventually relocated to St. Louis, MO. Then Scott was sold to a U.S. army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson, who moved him to Illinois and later to the Wisconsin territory. At the time, both Illinois and Wisconsin territory were “free” (meaning slavery was abolished and illegal). But that didn’t mean it wasn’t practiced. Like today, many people do illegal activities in their private lives.

In 1837, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson–who was sold by her owner to Dr. Emerson. 

The Scott couple lived in “free” territory for two years (1836-1838), half the time separated from their army surgeon master who the U.S. Army had transferred to the slave state of Louisiana. That’s when the surgeon married and reunited the two families, eventually returning to Missouri (another slave state). In 1843 Dr. Emerson died and the Scott family was passed in the will to his widow. That’s when things get messy.

The Dred Scott legal case originated in his desire to free himself and his family.

Scott first tried to purchase his freedom from his surgeon’s widow but was denied. So he took his matter to the courts. Dred Scott’s argument was simple: because he and his family had lived freely (separated from his master) in Wisconsin territory (where slavery was abolished and illegal) then he was technically freed at that time. And the rule of the day was “once free, always free.”

The first Missouri circuit court to hear the case agreed. Scott should be a free man, however the Missouri Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 1852. In doing so, the bench set a new precedent that a “slave” state did not have to honor a “free” state’s laws. A major part of their argument also included the fact Dred Scott should’ve filed for his freedom when in Wisconsin and not Missouri. For whatever reason, perhaps from ignorance of the law or busyness, Scott had not done this work.

Eventually the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 7-2 against Dred Scott.

It was purely a political and unprecedented decision by activist judges. After all, every one of  seven justices in the majority were pro-slavery Democrats appointed by Democrat presidents (the pro-slavery party of its day). The two dissenting justices were affiliated with the anti-slavery Whig/Republican parties.

This Supreme Court decision stated that, according to the U.S. Constitution, no African (black) was ever intended to be, nor could be, an American citizen.

Consequently, Dredd Scott had no “standing” to even file a case. That right was exclusively only for citizens of the United States. Furthermore, the Court stated Congress had no authority to ban slavery in territories (nullifying the Missouri Compromise of 1820). Finally they noted that “due process” (5th Amendment) prohibited the government from even freeing slaves brought into federal territories from slave-holding states.

Essentially, Dred Scott (and all Blacks, nearly all who were now born in America) were viewed as pure property. This case had ramifications even for “free” blacks in “free states” who owned property and voted. In one single decision the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the natural born “rights” of a group of people, based purely on their skin color.  It was a crushing blow, not just for blacks (in slavery or not) but for the abolitionist cause to end slavery in America.

The Dred Scott decision was also the first step in the march towards Civil War (1860-1865).

And yet this story is not without its twists.

Who, for example, initially financed Scott’s legal case and footed his bills? It was actually the adult children of Scott’s original owner. His kids became staunch abolitionists in the years after selling Scott to Dr. Emerson. Slavery was an evil of which they repented using their pocketbook.

But what happened next for Dred Scott, his wife and two daughters was even more amazing.

In a wild twist of irony, the Missouri widow who owned the Scott family remarried in 1850. Her new Massachusetts husband was a fiery and staunch abolitionist Republican doctor named Calvin C. Chaffee. In 1854 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Massachusetts. Both the marriage and election happened years before the 1857 Dred Scott decision. As a result of that ruling, Scott and his family were returned to the new Mrs. Chaffee as she was still their owner. However, the new bride was also an abolitionist like her congressman husband! She no longer believed in owning slaves and knew exactly what to do with Dred and his family.

Unfortunately, when she tried to emancipate Dred and his family, there were legal complications. To avoid the courts, Mrs. Chaffee deeded the Scott family to another Republican congressman named Taylor Blow (R-MO), who immediately freed Dred, his wife Harriet, and two children Eliza and Lizzie on May 26, 1857…just three months after this terrible Supreme Court ruling!

Dred Scott was a liberated man.

Unfortunately, his freedom on this side of eternity did not last. Scott’s life tragically ended sixteen months later due to tuberculosis. His body was returned to Missouri and buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. That’s where most stories end, but in Dred Scott’s case he became more celebrated after his death.

In fact, to this day, there’s a long-standing tradition to place Lincoln pennies on his grave for good luck. That’s because the Dred Scott decision was the inspiration for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, as well as the genesis for the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. In these constitutional amendments all the wrongs were corrected for Dred Scott and Black Americans. They were now all free from slavery, rightful citizens of the United States and able to universally vote.

But it all started with a man named Dred Scott.

And now you now the rest of HIStory.

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