Dred Scott v. Sanford: Case Summary & Decision

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  • 0:07 Dred Scott, the Slave
  • 1:43 A String of Court Cases
  • 5:24 Aftermath
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the famous Dred Scott v. Sanford Supreme Court case. We will learn about the case's background, the court's findings, and the impact of this landmark decision.

Dred Scott, the Slave

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia around the turn of the 19th century. He served the Peter Blow family during childhood and as a young adult and moved with them to St. Louis, Missouri, where, in the early 1830s, Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson. Emerson was an army surgeon, who traveled quite a bit and was appointed to various military posts. He took Scott with him to Fort Armstrong, Illinois, in 1833 and then to Fort Snelling in Wisconsin Territory in 1836. Both of these forts were on free soil where slavery was prohibited. Illinois was free under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and Wisconsin Territory was free under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Scott, however, remained a slave.

In 1836 or 1837, Scott married Harriet Robinson, a slave woman whose owner transferred her ownership to Emerson. The couple remained at Fort Snelling, hired out to a local resident, even after Emerson moved back to St. Louis in 1837. After Emerson was transferred to Louisiana, he called the Scotts to come to him, which they did, voluntarily traveling into a slave territory. Eventually, the couple ended up back in St. Louis, hired out to a grocer. When Emerson died in 1843, their ownership transferred to his wife, Eliza Irene Emerson.

A String of Court Cases

Here's where things get a bit more interesting. In 1846, the Scotts decided to sue Mrs. Emerson for their freedom. They argued that because they had resided in a free state and territory where slavery was prohibited, they were actually already free and had been since their time in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory. Missouri law and court precedents seemed to agree with them, for most lawmakers and judges supported the principle 'once free, always free.'

A string of court cases followed the Scotts' petition. In the first trial of 1847, the judge dismissed the case on a technicality, claiming that the evidence didn't completely prove that Mrs. Emerson actually owned the Scotts. An 1850 retrial ended in the Scotts' favor. The judge and jury applied the 'once free, always free' principle, and finally, Dred and Harriet Scott were free.

Mrs. Emerson's lawyers, however, were not ready to give up, and they appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court. After examining the case, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the lower court's ruling in 1852, and sent the Scotts back into slavery. The judges argued that Missouri should not have to recognize the laws of other states if they were in opposition to its own laws. Just because Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory were free, Missouri didn't have to free its slaves. Besides, the judges continued, the Scotts had voluntarily decided to return to slave territory, and in doing so, they had given up whatever freedom they might have had.

Still seeking justice and freedom, the Scotts next turned to the federal court system. This time they brought a lawsuit against Mrs. Emerson's brother, John Sanford, who had claimed ownership of them. In 1854, the federal court upheld the Missouri Supreme Court's ruling. The Scotts were still slaves.

They had only one more chance for freedom; they would take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court's nine justices heard the case in February of 1856. The prospects of success were slim from the beginning. Seven of the justices had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents, and five of these were from slave-owning families. The Scotts' lawyer argued that his clients were permanently free because they had lived in a free state and territory. The opposition tried a new tactic and claimed that the Scotts were never free in the first place because the Northwest Ordinance and Missouri Compromise were unconstitutional and Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery.

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