Dred Scott was an enslaved man of “100 percent pure” African descent. Dred’s case was predicated on the fact that he was taken by his master, an officer in the U.S. Army, from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and then to the free territory of Wisconsin. He lived on free soil for a long period of time.
Born in Southampton, Virginia, in his youth, Dred Scott was known as “Sam.” He later changed his name to Dred Scott. He moved with his master to Huntsville, Alabama and later to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1831 his owner, Peter Blow, died and John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, bought him. He accompanied his new master to Illinois (a free state) and Wisconsin (a territory). While in what is now Minnesota, around 1836 he met and married Harriett Robinson. In 1843 Emerson died and left his estate to his widow Irene Emerson, who refused Scott’s demand for his freedom. He then obtained the assistance of two attorneys who helped him to sue for his freedom in court.
One of the most important cases ever tried in the United States was heard in St. Louis’ Old Courthouse. The Supreme Court decided the case in 1857, and hastened the start of the Civil War.
When the first case was first filed in 1846, Dred Scott was in his late 40s. He was born in Virginia around 1799, and was the property, as his parents had been, of the Peter Blow family. He had spent his entire life as a slave, and never got the opportunity to learn to read. Dred Scott moved to St. Louis with the Blows in 1830, but was soon sold due to Blow’s financial problems. He was purchased by Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks, in south St. Louis and accompanied him to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. During this period, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, also a slave, at Fort Snelling; they later had four children, two boys that died in infancy and two girls, Eliza and Lizzie. John Emerson married Irene Sanford during a brief stay in Louisiana. In 1842, the Scott’s returned with Dr. and Mrs. Emerson to St. Louis. John Emerson died the following year, and it is believed that Mrs. Emerson hired out Dred Scott, Harriet, and their children to work for other families.
On April 6th, 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit against Irene Emerson for their freedom. For several years, Scott had lived in free territories, yet made no attempt to end his servitude. It is not known for sure why he chose this particular time for the suit, although historians have considered three possibilities: He may have been dissatisfied with being hired out; Mrs. Emerson might have been planning to sell him; as well as he offered to buy his own freedom and been refused. It is known that the suit was not brought for political reasons. Most likely, friends in St. Louis who opposed slavery had encouraged Scott to sue for his freedom on the grounds that he had once lived in a free territory.
In the past, Missouri courts supported the doctrine of “once free, always free.” Dred Scott could not read or write and had no money. He needed help with his suit. John Anderson, the Scott’s minister, may have been influential in their decision to sue, and the Blow family, Dred’s original owners, backed him financially. The support of such friends helped the Scotts through nearly eleven years of complex and often disappointing litigation.
It is difficult to understand today, but under the law in 1846 whether or not the Scotts were entitled to their freedom was not as important as the consideration of property rights. If slaves were indeed valuable property, like a car or an expensive home today, could they be taken away from their owners because of where the owner had taken them? In other words, if you drove your car from Missouri to Illinois, and the State of Illinois said that it was illegal to own a car in Illinois, could the authorities take the car away from you when you returned to Missouri? These were the questions being discussed in the Dred Scott case, with one major difference: your car is not human, and cannot sue you. Although few whites considered the human factor in Dred Scott’s slave suit, today we acknowledge that it is wrong to hold people against their will and force them to work as people did in the days of slavery.
The Dred Scott case was first brought to trial in 1846 on the first floor, west wing courtroom of St. Louis’ Old Courthouse. The Scotts lost the first trial because hearsay evidence was presented, but they were granted the right by the judge to a second trial. In the second trial, held in the same courtroom in 1850, a jury of 12 white men heard the evidence and decided that Dred Scott and his family should be free. Slaves were valuable property, and Mrs. Emerson did not want to lose the Scotts, so she appealed her case to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which in 1852 reversed the ruling made at the Old Courthouse, stating that “times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made.” The slavery issue was becoming more divisive nationwide, and provided the court with political reasons to return Dred Scott to slavery. The court was saying that Missouri law allowed slavery, and it would uphold the rights of slave-owners in the state at all costs.
Dred Scott was not ready to give up in his fight for freedom for himself and his family, however. With the help of a new team of lawyers who hated slavery, Dred Scott filed suit in St. Louis Federal Court in 1854 against John F. A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson’s brother and executor of the Emerson estate. Since Sanford resided in New York, the case was taken to the Federal courts due to diversity of residence. The suit was heard not in the Old Courthouse but in the Papin Building, near the area where the north leg of the Gateway Arch stands today. The case was decided in favor of Sanford, but Dred Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case. Seven of the nine justices agreed that Dred Scott should remain a slave, but Taney did not stop there. He also ruled that as a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. In addition, he declared that Scott had never been free, due to the fact that slaves were personal property; thus the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, and the Federal Government had no right to prohibit slavery in the new territories. The court appeared to be sanctioning slavery under the terms of the Constitution itself, and saying that slavery could not be outlawed or restricted within the United States.
The American public reacted very strongly to the Dred Scott Decision. Antislavery groups feared that slavery would spread unchecked. The new Republican Party, founded in 1854 to prohibit the spread of slavery, renewed their fight to gain control of Congress and the courts. Their well-planned political campaign of 1860, coupled with divisive issues that split the Democratic Party, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States and South Carolina’s secession from the Union. The Dred Scott Decision moved the country to the brink of Civil War.
Ironically, Irene Emerson was remarried in 1850 to Calvin C. Chaffee, a northern congressman opposed to slavery. After the Supreme Court decision, Mrs. Chaffee turned Dred and Harriet Scott and their two daughters over to Dred’s old friends, the Blows, who gave the Scotts their freedom on May 26, 1857. On September 17, 1858, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis and was buried in St. Louis at the old Weslyan Cemetery near the streets that are now Laclede and Grand. His grave was moved in the 1860s to Calvary Cemetery in northern St. Louis. His grave site at Calvary was marked due to the efforts of the Rev. Edward Dowling in 1957 of the Baden Historical Society. .
Dred Scott did not live to see the fratricidal war touched off at Fort Sumter in 1861, but did live to gain his freedom. The ultimate result of the war, the end of slavery throughout the United States, was not something Dred Scott could have foreseen in 1846, when he decided to sue for his freedom in St. Louis’ Old Courthouse.
However, his life, his purpose and indeed his destiny was to be forever a most integral part of the destruction of an institution that when abolished, in large part because of the perseverance of Dred and Harriet Scott, freed not only a people but a nation from the grip of an unspeakable evil.
*Portions of the above information published by permission
of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial & The Old Court House.