Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia around 1799. In 1830, Scott
and his master moved to Missouri, which was a slave state. Four years
later, a surgeon in the U.S. army named Dr. John Emerson bought Scott
and moved him to the free state of Illinois. In 1836, Scott and Emerson
moved to Fort Snelling, Wisconsin Territory. The Missouri Compromise
prohibited slavery in this territory. That same year, Scott married a
slave named Harriet. In 1838, the Emersons and the Scotts moved back to
Missouri where the Scotts had two daughters. Emerson died in 1843 and
left his possessions, including the Scotts, to his widow Irene. In 1846,
Scott asked Mrs. Emerson if he could work for his freedom. According to
Scott, she refused.
Scott sued Mrs. Emerson for "false imprisonment" and battery. Scott
argued that he was being held illegally because he had become a free man
as soon as he had lived in a free state. He claimed he was taken to a
slave state against his will. Many slaves had sued their owners in this
way and won their freedom in the past. In 1847, Emerson won in the
Missouri Circuit court because Scott's lawyers failed to prove that she
was holding Scott as a slave. Scott's lawyers successfully argued for a
By the time the new case went to trial in 1850, Emerson had moved to
Massachusetts leaving her brother, John Sanford, in charge of Scott's
case. The jury agreed that Scott and his family should be freed in
accordance with the doctrine "once free, always free." The case was
appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852, where two of the three
judges found for Emerson and Sanford. William Scott wrote the decision
of the court, stating that states have the power to refuse to enforce
the laws of other states.
Sanford was legally recognized as Scott's owner in 1853. Sanford
moved to New York leaving the Scotts in Missouri. Scott filed a new
lawsuit in federal court (the other suits had been in state court).
Federal courts settle disputes between citizens of different states. A
clerk mistakenly added a letter to Sanford's name, so the case
permanently became Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford.
In 1854, the U.S. Court for the District of Missouri heard the case.
John Sanford argued in this federal lawsuit that Dred Scott could not
sue because he was not a citizen. Judge Wells did not accept this
argument, but he did instruct the jury to apply only the laws of
Missouri in its decision. The jury found in favor of Sanford. Dred Scott
then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Unfortunately for Scott, the political divisions over slavery
worsened from the time his case first came to trial in 1847 through
1857, when the Court finally announced its decision. Events of this
period that increased conflicts included the passage of the Fugitive
Slave Act (1850), publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852),
enactment of The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), violence in "bleeding
Kansas" (1856), and Representative Brooks's beating of Senator Sumner in
the U.S. Senate (1856). Like almost all people of their time, the
justices had strong personal views about slavery. One justice, Peter V.
Daniel of Virginia, supported slavery so much that he even refused to
travel north of the Mason-Dixon line into a free state. Some historians
believe that Chief Justice Taney hoped that his decision in the Dred Scott case would help prevent, not create, future disputes over slavery.
Questions to Consider
- Why did Dred Scott sue Emerson? What was his goal?
- Summarize the basic argument made by Scott's lawyers in the
Missouri Circuit Court (the state court). Did Dred Scott have reason to
believe that he would win his case?
- How do you think the political divisions over slavery affected Dred Scott's chances of winning his case?