Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia around 1799. In 1834, a man named Dr. Emerson bought Dred Scott and they moved to Illinois, a non-slave (free) state. In 1836, they moved to Minnesota, also a non-slave state. There, Scott married another slave named Harriet. In 1838, the Emersons and the Scotts moved to Missouri, a slave state. In 1843, Dr. Emerson died, leaving his wife possession of the Scotts.

Dred Scott sued Mrs. Emerson. He claimed that he was no longer a slave because he had become free when he lived in a free state. The jury decided that Scott and his family should be free. The Emersons did not like the decision and appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852. That court said that Missouri does not have to follow the laws of another state. As a slave state, Missouri's laws meant that Scott and his family were not free.

Sanford moved to New York and left the Scotts in Missouri. Scott sued Sanford again in a federal court. Federal courts decide cases where the citizens live in different states. In 1854, the U.S. Court for the District of Missouri heard the case. Sanford won the case and Scott then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the country.

When the case came to the Supreme Court of the United States, the country was in deep conflict over slavery. In the past, some slaves had successfully sued their owners for freedom. However, by the 1850's, many states were hardening their positions on slavery, making such cases more difficult to win. It would not be long before the country was in a civil war over the issue of slavery.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why did Dred Scott take Emerson and Sanford to court? What did he want?
  2. Why did Scott believe he should be free?
  3. Did Scott have a good reason to believe that he would win his case? What political events changed this?