This week in history: America stepped closer to Civil War with the Dred Scott case

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, March 6 2013 5:30 p.m. MST

On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court reached its decision in the landmark case “Dred Scott vs. Sandford.” The case had profound consequences throughout the country and moved the United States closer to Civil War.

Dred Scott had been born a slave in Virginia sometime in the 1790s. After migrating with his master to St. Louis, Mo., eventually he was purchased by Dr. John Emerson, an army surgeon who took Scott first to Illinois and then to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin territory in the 1830s. Both state and territory rejected slavery, however, and when Emerson leased out Scott to labor for others he was breaking the law.

Scott eventually married another slave owned by Emerson, and their daughter was technically born a free African-American. Eventually, Scott and his family moved around with Emerson and his wife, Isabella Sandford, and at the time of Emerson's death they were living once again in St. Louis. In 1846, Scott and his wife each filed petitions for their freedom in the St. Louis District Court. Having lived in free territories so long, Scott claimed, negated their status as property.

Emerson's widow had transferred ownership of Scott and his wife to her brother, who maintained to the court that he was their legal master. After several years of legal back and forth, in which one court claimed the Scotts were free, and another ruling that they were slaves, the case eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Dred Scott Case must be viewed through the lens of the larger debate over slavery in America. In 1820, the United States Congress had passed the Missouri Compromise, which held that portions of the Louisiana Territory above the 36°30′ line must be free. This was the legal basis for states like Illinois and Wisconsin rejecting slavery. The compromise worked for a time, but increasingly tensions over the Western territories, won only after the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, dominated the national debate.

Essentially, the slave power in the South wanted to extend slavery into the Western territories, while most northern states wanted it kept out of the West. As both sides invoked the constitution to back up their positions, most Americans feared the conflict would escalate to civil war. When the population of California exploded in 1849 thanks to the gold rush, the territory applied for statehood. As most Californians wanted the new state to be a free state, the South was not happy. Only after the creation of the Compromise of 1850 and the promulgation of a powerful Fugitive Slave Act, to help Southerners recapture runaway slaves, was the South mollified.

Only a few years later, the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opened another can of worms when, in exchange for a transcontinental railroad terminus in his home state of Illinois, Sen. Stephen Douglas proposed that the Missouri Compromise be amended. In exchange for the South accepting the terminus as Chicago (rather than the Southern-favored cities of New Orleans or Memphis), Douglas proposed that the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, both north of the 36°30′ line, be opened up to the possibility of becoming slave states.

The result was a bloodbath in Kansas as pro-slave and pro-free partisans flooded into the territory and inaugurated a new era of violence. Indeed, “Bleeding Kansas” as it was called, seemed to portend coming events for the nation as a mini-Civil War was already under way in the mid-1850s.

It is against these national events that Scott's case played out. The nation began looking to the court not only to rule on Scott's status as a free man, but also in the hopes that it could solve the central issue of the day that both Congress and presidents had been unable to. When Democrat James Buchanan was elected president in 1856, he too believed that the court could solve the nation's most dire problem before it descended into open war.

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