Rural Missouri - March 2018 - 28
photos courtesy Library of Congress
by James Denny | email@example.com
n 1836, two seemingly unrelated events occurred. In March, Marylander
Roger B. Taney was named Chief Justice of the United States Supreme
Court. A month or two later, an African American man named Dred Scott
headed up the Mississippi River from Fort Armstrong, Illinois, where he
had resided, to Fort Snelling in unorganized Federal territory on land acquired
by the Missouri Compromise. He was traveling as the enslaved servant of John
Emerson, an Army medical ofﬁcer on his way to a new assignment far up the
Mississippi River. Twenty-one years later the paths of Dred Scott and Roger Taney would cross as the result of a case, Scott v. Sandford, before the
Supreme Court during the 1857 term. Taney's controversial decision helped
inﬂame sectional passions as the nation teetered toward civil war.
In 1846 Dred Scott was living in St. Louis. The two years he spent in Illinois
at Fort Armstrong, and the subsequent three years he was at Fort Snelling,
potentially entitled him to be a free man. The Illinois constitution banned slavery, and in the Wisconsin Territory (later Minnesota) slavery was also banned
per the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and later federal laws.
If Dred Scott was free in those areas, he was free in Missouri according to the
prevailing standard of judicial comity that required Missouri courts to respect
the laws of Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. This was the issue that Dred
Scott was about to contend in a freedom suit he ﬁled against Irene Emerson,
the widow of John Emerson. The freedom suit was actually a family affair.
While at Fort Snelling, Scott married Harriet Robinson, who also became a part
of Emerson's household. Her suit for freedom was ﬁled at the same time as
Dred's, on April 6, 1846.
Freedom suits were a rare and highly constricted wormhole to freedom for
Missouri's slaves. Out of 115,000 enslaved African Americans, there were only
209 petitions for freedom. In the end only around a hundred or so former slaves
ever gained emancipation through freedom suits.
The Scotts' ﬁrst trial took place in the spring of 1847. The verdict went
against the Scotts on a technicality. After numerous delays, including a cholera
outbreak and a deadly ﬁre in downtown St. Louis, the case was ﬁnally heard
again in February 1850. This time the Scotts triumphed and were awarded
their freedom. The case was immediately appealed by Emerson and her lawyers
to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Dred and Harriet had waited a dangerously long time to launch their suits.
Their cases would soon be swept up in a fresh wave of sectional acrimony
stirred up in the aftermath of the Mexican War. Whether slavery would be
allowed in the territories captured from Mexico polarized the sections. The politics of slavery infused every aspect of life in Missouri, including
In 1852, for the ﬁrst time, the members of the Supreme
Court of Missouri were elected by popular vote. Proslavery
southerners dominated the new court. Comity no longer prevailed anywhere, neither in the civil society, nor in the legislative halls, nor even in the courts. The idea that a slave
state had to respect the edicts of free states and territories in
respect to slavery was now emphatically rejected. Decades
of legal jurisprudence based on comity were overturned
entirely. Ground up in this process was the appeal of Dred
Scott. From here forward the cases of Dred and Harriet
were combined. The verdict, whatever it was, in Dred's
case would apply to his wife and children, as well.
On March 22, 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court
issued a 3-2 decision invalidating any need to take the
laws of free states or territories into consideration. When
Dred and Harriet returned to Missouri, they returned to
bondage. Their petition for freedom was denied and the
couple was remanded to slavery.
RURAL MISSOURI | MARCH 2018
Dred Scott's legal battle roused
national debate on slavery
Six years had passed since the Scotts ﬁrst began their suits for freedom. By
this time Dred was getting on in years. He was 57, while Harriet was 34. The
Scotts had two daughters, Eliza, 13, and Lizzie, 8, who were at an age when
children were sold, sometimes on the steps of the same St. Louis courthouse
where the Scotts' freedom cases were being heard.
The Scott case was appealed to the St. Louis circuit court. On May 15, 1854,
the case came to trial. Irene Emerson remarried and assigned her interest in
Dred and Harriet Scott and their children to her brother, John F. A. Sandford.
The verdict was in Sanford's favor. The court ruled that Scott was and had
always been a slave and never a citizen of Missouri. As a slave he had never had
the right to bring a suit for his freedom. The Dred Scott case was now appealed
to the U. S. Supreme Court, and on Dec. 30, 1854, the case Scott v. Sandford
was placed on the docket of the high court.
In February 1856, oral arguments were heard before the Supreme Court.
The ﬁnal decision of the court was not rendered until March 6, 1857. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Roger Taney electriﬁed the nation with his
stunning verdict. Dred Scott was not and never could be an American citizen
because he belonged to a degraded and inferior race Taney ruled. Black men
"had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Furthermore, the
Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories.
Ironically, the Dred Scott decision had no effect on Dred and his family.
Irene Emerson Chafee had married a Massachusetts congressman who also
was an abolitionist and rather embarrassed by his wife's ownership of a slave
who now was nationally famous. Mrs. Chafee quickly transferred ownership
of the Scott family to Taylor Blow of St. Louis, who immediately set them free.
On May 26, less than two months after Taney's decision, the Scott family was
formally emancipated by the St. Louis court.
By then Dred Scott had become a well-recognized celebrity. He became a
greeter at the fashionable Barnum's Hotel in St. Louis. But Dred was in failing health and died of tuberculosis on Sept. 17, 1858, several months shy of
the second anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court decision that bore his
name. Harriet lived on for two more decades until June 20, 1876.
The opinion expressed by Taney would be one of the most controversial
Supreme Court decisions in American history. It was the worst possible decision at the worst possible time. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which allowed
new states to determine whether they would allow slavery by popular sovereignty, had unleashed the worst national political crises yet over the expansion
of slavery. Kansas became the key battleground, as competing territorial governments, one proslavery and the other Free State, clashed violently.
Taney's opinion only fanned the ﬂames of this deadly national conﬂagration.
If Taney had hoped to wrap slavery forever in a protective constitutional cocoon, and thereby suppress the antislavery crusade, his opinion had the opposite effect. The Kansas
question ended up cleaving the Democratic party into
northern and southern factions. The split Democratic
vote enabled the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, to win the presidency. The Republicans could
now defeat Taney's decision by simply ignoring it, and
later, after the Civil War, by changing the Constitution
to emphatically reject Taney's view of race and citizenship. The 13th Amendment ended slavery, and the 14th
Amendment overturned Taney's denial of citizenship to
Denny is a member of Co-Mo Electric and a freelance
writer from Lupus.
The Scotts became front page news in the U.S. over the 11 years it took for their
cases to move from St. Louis to the Supreme Court.
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