- The Dred Scott decision is one of the most controversial court rulings in US history.
- In 1836, a slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom.
- The US Supreme Court ruled against him, deciding that he who descended from slaves was not an American citizen.
- This decision became one of the causes of the American Civil War.
In the past, African Americans in the US were slaves and considered property. Slavery was legal in many states and territories, though some did not allow it. Keep reading to learn more Dred Scott Decision facts.
Slaves had to work for their owners. They had them do whatever they wanted, for example, clean their house and cook their food.
Today people think slavery is wrong because it takes away a human right which is personal freedom.
Read about Triangular Slave Trade
Why is the Dred Scott decision famous?
Dred Scott tried to win his family’s freedom in court.
Although Scott was a slave, he never stopped fighting to be free. He went from the state to the federal courts. The case took ten years to reach the US Supreme Court after it was heard by four other courts along the way.
The Missouri Compromise
In 1820, there were tensions about slavery. Congress passed a law that said that Missouri would be a slave state and Maine would be free. They banned slavery from some states. But they agreed that in other states, it would be legal to own slaves.
People argued that slavery could not be unconstitutional because the Fifth Amendment prohibited depriving someone of property without due process.
The Missouri Compromise was a law that made slavery illegal in the new states. It lasted for about 30 years before it was replaced by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which let people choose if they wanted to make slavery legal or not.
But in 1857, the court changed the law that said that slavery was not allowed in territories north of Missouri. This made people who were against slavery angry. They disagreed with this law. They wanted to change it. This eventually led to the Civil War happening.
Who was Dred Scott?
Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia. He grew up in Alabama as a slave to Peter Blow and his family. He used to farm for Mr. Blow.
Nevertheless, Blow gave up farming and moved to Missouri with his family and his slaves. Since he now owned a boarding house, he had no need for Dred, so he sold him to Dr. John Emerson.
Years as a slave
Dr. Emerson had to move to Illinois so that he could work at a military base. Scott tried to run away to become free, but he was captured and returned to Dr. Emerson.
Scott had to follow Emerson wherever he moved. Later Scott married another slave named Harriet. The law said the wives of slaves became properties of the man’s owner. So Harriet became Emerson’s slave.
Together they moved with Emerson and his wife back to the states where slavery was allowed. They had two daughters, one name Eliza after their owner’s wife, and the other was named Lizzie.
Later, when Dr. Emerson died, his wife, Eliza Irene Sanford, became Scott’s owner. Scott offered Eliza $300 to buy his family’s freedom. But she refused.
Scott goes to court
Dred wanted to be a free man, so he tried another way of getting his freedom instead of being a slave forever.
When Eliza Sandford didn’t give Dred’s family their freedom, he and his wife Harriet filed separate freedom suits in April 1846.
Dred and Harriet could not read or write, but they received help from the sons of their former owner, Peter Blow.
The Blow family helped them financially. Many mysteries are surrounding why the Blows did that.
To become a free man, Dred Scott filed a lawsuit in Missouri.
He said because he had lived in places where slavery was illegal, he should also be free. The petitioners claimed they were free because of the decision in 1824 by the Missouri Supreme Court. The decision stated that “once a person is free, he or she will always be free.”
The same argument was made for Eliza, Dred’s and Harriet’s daughter, who was born on a steamboat that was between two free states. This would also require her emancipation.
The judge, in this case, was known to be lenient with freedom suits from slaves. Nevertheless, Scott lost the first lawsuit because there was a technicality. That means that there was a small detail that had nothing to do with the actual case. Because of that detail, Dred lost the trial.
The court gave him another trial.
Dred Scott wanted a new trial, though Emerson refused it. The trial happened in 1850.
It was a victory for Dred and Harriet, but Emerson did not want to lose the case, so she appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri.
In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s previous decision. They said the Scotts were still slaves, so they were not free.
The following year, Dred Scott filed a new lawsuit with the Court of Missouri.
But Irene Emerson had transferred him and his family to her brother John Sanford in 1853.
Sadly, on May 15, 1854, the federal court ruled once again against Scott. As a result of this ruling, he and his family still remained slaves.
Fourth trial: Scott versus Sandford
Scott appealed again in December 1854. The fourth trial started on February 11, 1856.
This time, the case had become famous with abolitionist politicians and lawyers. Nevertheless, Scott lost his fight for freedom again on March 6, 1857.
The Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision. All nine justices gave opinions, but the one that mattered most was the opinion of Chief Justice Roger Taney. That is because it was the opinion people argued about.
Chief Justice Roger Taney
Taney thought black people were not citizens in America. He said white people would never want black African slaves and their descendants to be Americans too.
The judge concluded that black people could never become American citizens. He said that the laws in America showed a “perpetual and impassable barrier” between whites and blacks, which was intended to divide white people from the ones they had enslaved.
This judge’s opinion overruled other ideas. That is why the Supreme Court decided that because Scott was African-American, he was not a citizen of America.
In a political decision, the court ruled that Scott was still a slave and he had no rights as a citizen.
As years went by, historians have found that before the Supreme Court made its ruling, President-elect James Buchanan had put pressure on members of the court. This means the judges were not thinking on their own.
Taney’s opinion was challenged by Justice Benjamin Curtis, who said that the claim that black people could not be citizens had no basis. Justice John McLean also disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision and said it was not legally authoritative.
Taney’s opinion was criticized by many people, including Abraham Lincoln. People thought that this opinion would eventually lead to slavery everywhere in the United States.
Scott’s lawyers were hoping for a landmark decision, but they did not get it. The Supreme Court’s ruling made people angrier against slavery. Abraham Lincoln spoke out against it and won support from people, which helped him win the election.
Many people in the North were angry when they heard the decision. Many in the South were happy. The Dred Scott Decision was one of the causes of the Civil War, according to historians.
What became of Dred Scott?
After the Dred Scott Decision, the Scott family became slaves of Irene Emerson’s new husband, Calvin Chaffee. He was an abolitionist. That means he was against slavery.
People then attacked Chaffee for owning slaves while being an abolitionist. So then he gave them to Taylor Blow.
On May 26, 1857, the Scott family got what they wanted. Taylor Blow gave them their freedom, so they were no longer enslaved. Now they could be free and not have to work for anyone else anymore.
Dred Scott found a job as a porter at a hotel in St. Louis. People there treated him like a celebrity.
Unfortunately, he died of tuberculosis a year later and was buried in Wesleyan Cemetery.
In 1867, Taylor Blow moved Dred’s grave to Calvary Cemetery. Today people leave coins on Dred Scott’s tombstone. They think it is a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to free slaves.
Harriet had married when she was a teenager. She lived until June 17, 1876.
Eliza Scott had children, but Lizzie did not. There are still people living today who are descendants of Harriet Scott and Dred Scott.
Chief Justice Taney swore in Lincoln as president. It was ironic because he also helped make the Civil War happen!
The Dred Scott Decision made people mad. They thought that the Supreme Court wanted to stop people from talking about slavery.
This made people in the North and South angry, so they tried to fix it. The divide between North and South became bigger, which led to Southern states leaving the United States and forming their own country called the Confederate States of America.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people living in this country on September 22, 1862. Congress passed a law three years later that abolished slavery in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
P.S. If you enjoyed what you read and are a teacher or tutor needing resources for your students from kindergarten all the way up to high school senior (or even adults!), check out our partner sites KidsKonnect, SchoolHistory, and HelpTeaching for hundreds of facts, worksheets, activities, quizzes, courses, and more!