Who was Dred Scott and why is he significant?

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Photo Credit: The New Yorker

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The Dred Scott case, also known as Dred Scott v. Sandford, was a decade-long fight for freedom by a Black enslaved man named Dred Scott. The case persisted through several courts and ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, whose decision incensed abolitionists, gave momentum to the anti-slavery movement, and served as a stepping stone to the Civil War.

Who Was Dred Scott?

Dred Scott was born into slavery around 1799 in Southampton County, Virginia. In 1818, he moved with his owner Peter Blow to Alabama, then in 1830 he moved to St. Louis, Missouri—both slave states—where Peter ran a boarding house.

After Blow died in 1832, army surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased Scott and eventually took him to Illinois, a free state, and then to Fort Snelling in Wisconsin Territory where the Missouri Compromise had outlawed slavery. There, Scott married Harriet Robinson, also enslaved, in a rare civil ceremony; her owner transferred ownership of Harriet to Emerson.

In late 1837, Emerson returned to St. Louis but left Dred and Harriet Scott behind and hired them out. Emerson then moved to Louisiana, a slave state, where he met and married Eliza (Irene) Sandford in February 1838; Dred Scott soon joined them.

In October 1838, Emerson, his wife Irene and their enslaved workers returned to Wisconsin. After the army honorably discharged Emerson in 1842, he and Irene returned to St. Louis with Scott and his family (which now included two daughters), but they struggled to find success and soon moved to Iowa. It’s unclear if Scott and his family accompanied them or stayed in St. Louis to be hired out.

John Emerson died suddenly in 1843 in Iowa, and his enslaved workers became Irene’s property. She returned to St. Louis to live with her father and hired out Scott and his family. Scott tried multiple times to purchase his freedom from Irene, but she refused.

For unknown reasons, Dred and Harriet Scott never tried to run away or sue for freedom while living in or traveling through free states and territories.

Dred Scott v. Sandford

In April 1846, Dred and Harriet filed separate lawsuits for freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court against Irene Emerson based on two Missouri statutes. One statute allowed any person of any color to sue for wrongful enslavement. The other stated that any person taken to a free territory automatically became free and could not be re-enslaved upon returning to a slave state.

Neither Dred nor Harriet Scott could read or write and they needed both logistical and financial support to plead their case. They received it from their church, abolitionists and an unlikely source, the Blow family who had once owned them.

Since Dred and Harriet Scott had lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory — both free domains — they hoped they had a persuasive case. When they went to trial on June 30, 1847, however, the court ruled against them on a technicality and the judge granted a retrial.

The Scotts went to trial again in January 1850 and won their freedom. Irene appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court which combined Dred and Harriet’s cases and reversed the lower court’s decision in 1852, making Dred Scott and his family enslaved again.

In November 1853, Scott filed a federal lawsuit with the United States Circuit Court for the District of Missouri. By this time, Irene had transferred Scott and his family to her brother, John Sandford (although it was determined later that she retained ownership). On May 15, 1854, the federal court heard Dred Scott v. Sandford and ruled against Scott, holding him and his family in slavery.

In December 1854, Scott appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court. The trial began on February 11, 1856. By this time, the case had gained notoriety and Scott received support from many abolitionists, including powerful politicians and high-profile attorneys. But on March 6, 1857, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, Scott lost his fight for freedom again.

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