Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)

Dred Scott was slave born in Virginia. Scott was moved to Missouri, where he was later sold to Dr. John Emerson, a United States Army doctor, whose service took him around the country and its territories.  When Emerson died, Scott became the property of his widow, Irene Stanford Emerson.  Scott–who was married to a slave named Harriett, with whom he had two children–asked to purchase his family’s freedom, but Ms. Emerson refused.

In 1846, Scott filed a lawsuit in local court in St. Louis, Missouri.  The suit claimed that he should have been granted his freedom when Dr. Emerson moved him to states where slavery was illegal (they lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, in modern day Minnesota).  Scott (his wife filing a separate legal action), sued Ms. Emerson in St. Louis County Court and lost.  But he appealed the decision to the Missouri Appeals Court, who reversed the lower court’s decision in 1850, granting Scott his freedom.  Ms. Emerson’s layers, in turn, filed an appeal to the Missouri State Supreme Court.  In 1852, the Appeals Court’s decision was overturned and Scott was again a slave.

Ms. Emerson transferred ownership of the Scotts to her brother– John F. A. Sanford–in the meantime.  This created an opportunity to file a new lawsuit, this time in federal court, because he lived in New York.  Since the suit involved parties in two different states, a federal court had to rule on it.  The new suit was filed in 1853 and the initial ruling, made in 1854, also found in favor of Sanford.  Scott’s lawyers appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court in 1856.

The Court heard the case in 1857 and the results were not what Scott hoped for.  In this landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that slaves were not citizens of the United States and were not, therefore, guaranteed rights.  This included the right to bring suit in court, causing them to throw the case out.

But the ramification of the Court’s ruling went far deeper.  The case is also infamous for labeling slaves as property, not people.  In addition to stripping all slaves of any legal protection, this legal point had a bigger impact.  The Constitution clearly stated that American citizens could not be denied their property without due process of law.  The Court said that since slaves were considered property, by law, that any laws passed by Congress about slavery were unconstitutional.  So earlier attempts of Congress to limit the spread of slavery—such as the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise—were stricken down.

At a time where tension over slavery dominated national politics, the Dred Scott decision voided compromises that had been made to keep the peace and prevented Congress from making any future ones.  It was now powerless as it couldn’t pass any laws to limit the expansion of slavery or to relieve the sectional tensions that were already at fever pitch.

The tension continued to build, ultimately leading to the Civil War.  When Republican Abraham Lincoln won the Election of 1860, southern states declaring that they were seceding from the Union, motivated by their fears that Lincoln and the Republicans intended to outlaw slavery.  While the Republican Party favored the gradual elimination of slavery, they and their new president had no intentions to attempt to ban slavery.  But the federal government did say that the southern states did not have a legal right to seceded.  It was on this point that the fighting of the Civil War began, as Lincoln attempted to preserve the Union by not allowing secession.

It was only as the war continued–and it was a nasty war with massive death and destruction unlike any war before it–that President Abraham Lincoln decided that slavery need to be abolished and pushed for the proposal and ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  After the Union defeated the Confederate Army, southern states were brought back into the country, but only after they ratified the 13th Amendment, accepting the abolition of slavery.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

BEFORE: Worcester v. Georgia (1832)    

AFTER:  Munn v. Illinois (1877)

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