Dredd Scott Decision

"Shocks, Throes, and Convulsions"


"Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man\'s nature--opposition to it on his love of justice. These principles are in eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely as slavery extension brings them, shocks and throes and convulsions must ceaselessly follow." (Abraham Lincoln)[1]

America in 1857 was "A Nation on the Brink" as defined by Kenneth Stampp in his book with the same title. Relationships between the Northern and Southern states had been strained for decades, but during the 1840s and especially the 1850s, the situation exploded. Pro-slavery and antislavery forces clashed frequently and fatally in "Bleeding Kansas," while the presidential election of 1856 turned ugly when southern states threatened secession if a candidate from the antislavery Republican party won. Into this charged atmosphere stepped a black slave from Missouri named Dred Scott.

During the 1850s in the United States, Southern support of slavery and Northern opposition to it collided more violently than ever over the case of Dred Scott, a black slave from Missouri who claimed his freedom on the basis of seven years of residence in a free state and a free territory. When the predominately pro-slavery Supreme Court of the United States heard Scott\'s case and declared that not only was he still a slave but that the main law guaranteeing that slavery would not enter the new Midwestern territories of the United States was unconstitutional, it sent America into convulsions. The turmoil would end only after a long and bloody civil war fought primarily over the issue of slavery and its extension into America\'s unorganized territories. The Supreme Court\'s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford helped hasten the arrival of the American Civil War, primarily by further polarizing the already tense relations between Northerners and Southerners.

Scott had spent extended periods of time with his owner, Dr. John Emerson, in Fort Armstrong, Illinois, Fort Snelling, Wisconsin Territory, Fort Jessup, Louisiana, and in St. Louis. During his travels, Scott lived for a total of seven years in areas closed to slavery; Illinois was a free state and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had closed the Wisconsin Territory to slavery. When Scott\'s decade-long fight for freedom began on April 6, 1846, he lived in St. Louis and was the property of Emerson\'s wife.



Scott declared that he was free by virtue of his residence at Fort Armstrong and Fort Snelling. He had strong legal backing for this declaration; the Supreme Court of Missouri had freed many slaves who had traveled with their masters in free states. In the Missouri Supreme Court\'s 1836 Rachel v. Walker ruling, it decided that Rachel, a slave taken to Fort Snelling and to Prairie du Chien in Illinois, was free. By the early 1850s, however, sectional conflict had arisen again uglier than ever, and most Missourians did not encourage the freeing of slaves. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against Scott in 1852. He then took his case out of the state judicial system and into the federal judicial system by bringing it to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Missouri.

At this point in the case, Scott\'s possession had been transferred to John Sanford which changed the case from Scott v. Emerson to Scot v. Sandford [different spelling due to a clerical error]. The case resumed in 1854 in the United States Circuit Court. Judge Robert W. Wells, "a slaveholder who nevertheless regarded slavery as a barrier to progress," presided over the trial[2]. Though Scott was deemed to be a citizen, Sanford countered that even if Scott had gained his freedom while residing in Illinois, he had regained his slave status upon returning to Missouri. This defense proved successful and the jury decided in favor of Sanford.

The next step for Scott was to take his case to the highest tribunal in the country: the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court first heard the case of Scott v. Sandford in early 1856, but ordered a reargument for the next term. By this time, Congress had renewed the debate over Congressional power to regulate slavery in the territories in light of the recent bloody conflicts in Kansas. Both sides began to view the issue as a decision for the Supreme Court, and not for