Thursday, September 10, 2015

American History 101: The Dred Scott Case

When Dred Scott filed his original law suit in 1846, he was not only suing for his own freedom, but he was reaching out to grasp at the right of freedom for his wife, his children and the for that of black Americans for generations to come.  And at the time, the decision stung as much as any whip that was wielded by any slave owner.

What has since become known as "The Dred Scott Case" began in 1846 as Scott v. Emerson.  Dred Scott had
attempted to purchase his freedom from his owner, Irene Emerson.  When she refused Scott filed a lawsuit to attempt to win his freedom in court.  In previous years, Scott had traveled with Dr. Emerson around the country which included several years in free states and free territories.  During that time he met and married his wife in a civil ceremony before a Justice of the Peace in the free territory of Wisconsin.  This was unusual for a slave, as slave marriages were generally not recognized.  And then while still in a free state, his wife gave birth to two daughters.  In total, Scott and his wife lived in a free state or territory for over two years consecutively.  Scott's lawsuit in 1846 was based on the Missouri legal precedent that held that slaves could be freed under an extended residence in a free state or territory.  And in that situation, when they returned to Missouri (a slave state), they would remain free.  The original case in 1846 was decided against Scott, but was retried because it was found that Mrs. Emerson's testimony regarding the events that occurred during Dr. Scott's travels was here-say.  Dred Scott won the re-trial.  

In 1852, Mrs. Emerson appealed the decision and the higher court threw out the lower courts decision, and the Scott family remained Emerson slaves.  This decision was a landmark case in Missouri because, in essence, the court threw out twenty eight years of legal precedent when it held that because of growing anti-slavery sentiment in free states, Missouri no longer had to defer to the laws of any free state.

Justice Roger B. Taney
And then in 1853, Mrs. Emerson moved to Massachusetts and transferred ownership of the Scott's to her brother, John Sanford.  At the time Sanford was a resident of New York, so when Scott files suit again for his freedom he did so in Federal Court under the diversity of citizenship rules.  Scott lost in federal district court, but appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court heard and ruled on the case in 1857.  In what was, at the time, a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Scott 7-2.  The court found that no one of African ancestry could ever be a citizen of the United States, and as such had no standing to bring a law suit in Federal Court under the diversity of citizenship rules.  But the court did not stop there by just throwing the case out of court.  The court also ruled that the idea that Scott was free because he resided in free states or territories was invalid because the law that allowed this, the Missouri Compromise, was unconstitutional.  And then, after striking down the Missouri Compromise of 1820, it went on to rule that the Ordinance of 1787 (which conferred citizenship to slaves) could not confer citizenship to non-whites in the Northwest territories.  And in addition to that, the court ruled that Scott was considered the private property of Dr. and Mrs. Emerson, and now John Sanford.  And because of this he was considered private property and as such was protected by the Fifth Amendment which held that not property can be taken from its owner without due process.

When Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the majority opinion one can only imagine that he felt he was striking a blow to the anti-slavery movement and the abolition cause.  Instead he incited public outrage and fueled the fire of the abolitionists.  The chasm between the north and south had never been deeper then it was in 1857, just four years before the agitation between states rights, individual rights and the basic differences between the north and south would ignite into one of the greatest tragedies in American history: The Civil War.  One could easily point and claim that the Dred Scott Case was one of the single biggest flames in the fire of the upcoming war.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel -- with a new book, Learn the Basics: Digital Forensics, due soon. 

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