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Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sanford

the Supreme Court case that ended with blacks being denied citizenship

Dred Scott

Dred Scott was born a slave in Southhampton, Virginia, about 1800. His master, Peter Blow, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1830, and took Scott with him. Blow died about 1833 and his daughter subsequently sold Scott to John Emerson, an Army physician then stationed at Jefferson Barracks (just south of St. Louis).

When Dr. Emerson was transferred to Fort Armstrong at Rock Island, Illinois, he took Scott with him, despite slavery being illegal in Illinois. Scott could have sued for his freedom at this time, but for reasons unknown he did not do so. He passed up another opportunity when he was taken to Fort Snelling, Minnesota Territory, in 1836. Not long after the move, Emerson bought a slave woman named Harriet from a fellow officer. Dred and Harriet were subsequently married, with Emerson's consent. Initially hired out to another officer at Fort Snelling while Emerson was stationed in Florida, Dred and Harriet joined their master at Jefferson Barracks in 1843. Two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, had been born in the interim.

Emerson died soon after returning to Missouri, and the Scotts were left to his widow, Irene, for the benefit of their minor daughter. Using money he had accumulated as a hired hand, Dred attempted to buy his family's freedom from Mrs. Emerson, but she refused. Dred then decided to sue for his freedom in court, and on April 6, 1846, he and Harriet filed separate petitions in the St. Louis County Circuit Court. Finally heard on June 30, 1847, the case ended in a victory for Mrs. Emerson because Scott could not prove that either he or his wife were in fact owned by Mrs. Emerson. The presiding judge, Alexander Hamilton, did, however, grant Scott a retrial. The second trial ended on January 12, 1850, and this time the Scotts won their freedom. Mrs. Emerson appealed the second verdict to the Missouri Supreme Court, which overturned the Circuit Court decision on March 22, 1852.

By the time the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against Scott, Mrs. Emerson had remarried and moved to Massachusetts, leaving her brother, John F. A. Sanford, in charge of her affairs. On November 2, 1853, Scott filed a new case with the United States Circuit Court for Missouri, this time against John Sanford. According to Scott's petition, the case now belonged in a federal court because Sanford lived in New York and Scott still resided in Missouri. The Court upheld Scott's right to a federal trial, but the May 15, 1854, verdict was in Sanford's favor.

Scott's case next moved to the United States Supreme Court, which heard arguments on February 11 and December 15, 1856. The majority decision, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, was handed down on March 6, 1857. In it, Taney declared that blacks, slave or free, could not be citizens of the United States and therefore did not have the right to sue for anything in a federal court; five of his colleagues agreed that slaves were not citizens, but disagreed over whether freed slaves could become citizens. The Court also ruled that the federal government did not have the authority to restrict slavery in any state or territory because the Constitution gave individuals the right to own property, including slaves, without restriction.

Following the trial and ultimate verdict, Mrs. Emerson sold the Scotts to the descendants of Peter Blow, Dred's original owner, who immediately granted the Scotts' freedom. Dred Scott did not have much of an opportunity to enjoys his freedom, however, as he died of tuberculosis nine months later.


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This page was last updated on 12/05/2018.