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.
In his book, “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” historian Sean Wilentz wrote, “As he walked to the crowded podium at the Capitol to deliver his inauguration speech and take the oath of office, President-elect James Buchanan stopped to have a brief private conversation with the man who would swear him in, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. Everyone toward the front of the throng below could see the two huddle together. Buchanan then told the nation that a case pending before the Supreme Court would settle the outstanding issues regarding slavery and the territories. He bid all good Americans to submit 'cheerfully' to the decision 'whatever (it) may be.’ ”
Two days after Buchanan gave his inauguration speech, the court made its ruling. In a seven to two decision, the court offered a dramatic and contradictory ruling. First, it found that Scott did indeed remain a slave.
This is where the court's views became both far reaching and paradoxical. Despite the fact that they had ruled in the case, Scott, the court claimed, had no power to sue in a U.S. court for the simple fact that he was not a citizen. Taney wrote in his opinion that the framers of the constitution had regarded African-Americans, slave or free, as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Taney and the court did not end there, however. Though the justices had just ruled on a case that they freely admitted they had no jurisdiction over, the court also attempted to solve the national question as well, for which it had equally as little jurisdiction.
In his opinion Taney wrote: “An act of Congress which deprives a citizen of the United States of his liberty or property, merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular Territory of the United States could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law.”
The court essentially ruled that Congress had no power to restrict the spread of slavery into the Western territories. In his book, “America's Constitution: A Biography,” legal historian Akhil Reed Amar wrote, “This was nonsense. Free-soil statutes like the 1789 Northwest Ordinance Act and the 1820 Missouri Compromise Act were textbook examples of due process of law. After all, they had been duly enacted in a manner that gave fair notice to everyone — 'Don't bring slaves here or else you lose them.’ ”
Taney had hoped the court's decision would end the national debate and the freedom to move slavery into the Western territories would become settled law. This did not happen. Rather, northerners opposed to slavery refused to accept the court's decision and helped to strengthen the emerging Republican Party, which held banning slavery from the territories as its primary tenant. Likewise, the decision helped to fracture the Democratic Party, which now split along sectional lines and emboldened Southerners calling for secession.
John Sanford returned ownership of Scott to his sister, who in the meantime had moved to Massachusetts and married an abolitionist and a member of Congress, Calvin Chaffee. Chaffee persuaded his wife to return Scott to a previous owner, now an abolitionist, and Scott and his family were soon freed. He died from tuberculosis as a hotel porter in St. Louis in 1858.
In the aftermath of the Civil War in 1868, the United States created the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which held that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
The amendment ensured that all African-Americans were indeed citizens of the United States.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org