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The Dredd Scott Decision
United States Supreme Court case Scott v. Sanford (1857), commonly known as the Dred Scott Case, is probably the most famous case of the nineteenth century (with the exception possibly of Marbury v. Madison). It is one of only four cases in U. S. history that has ever been overturned by a Constitutional amendment (overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments). It is also, along with Marbury, one of only two cases prior to the Civil War that declared a federal law unconstitutional. This case may have also been one of the most, if not the most, controversial case in American history, due simply to the fact that it dealt an explosive opinion on an issue already prepared to erupt - slavery. Thus, many scholars assert that the Dred Scott case may have almost single-handedly ignited the ever growing slavery issue into violence, culminating ultimately into the American Civil War. It effectively brought many abolitionists and anti-slavery proponents, particularly in the North, "over the edge".
Dred Scott was a slave born in Virginia who early in life moved with his owner to St. Louis, Missouri. At this time, due to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Missouri was added as a slave state, but no state may allow slavery if that state falls above the 36 degree 30 minute latitudinal line. Later, in 1854 under the Kansas-Nebraska Act, states were allowed to vote on whether they will allow slavery or not, known commonly as popular sovereignty. In St. Louis, Scott was sold to an army surgeon named Dr. John Emerson in 1833. A year later, Emerson, on a tour of duty, took Scott, his slave, to Illinois, a free state. In 1836, Emerson's military career then took the both of them to the free Wisconsin territory known today as Minnesota. Both of these states, it is important to recognize, where both free states and both above the 36 degree 30 minute line.
While Emerson and Scott were in Wisconsin, Scott married Harriet Robinson, another slave, and ownership of her was subsequently transferred to Emerson. Dr. Emerson himself took a bride while on a tour of duty in Louisiana, named Eliza Irene Sanford, whose family happened to live in St. Louis. While the slaves (Dred and Harriet) stayed in St. Louis with Eliza and the rest of the family, Dr. Emerson was posted in Florida in 1842, where the Seminole war was being fought. He returned a year later but died within a few months of arrival at home. The slaves continued to work for Mrs. Emerson after Dr. Emerson's death.
In April of 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott filed a suit for "freedom" against Irene Emerson in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, obviously under the jurisdiction of Missouri law. The established legal principle of Missouri at this time regarding slavery was "once free, always free". In other words, to the Missouri courts, what Scott was doing was perfectly acceptable due to the precedent of the Missouri case Rachael v. Walker (1837), which basically stated that if a slave was taken by his or her master to a free state that slave was then "entitled to freedom by virtue of residence in the free state or territory" [Oxford, 761]. On account of this alone, Scott and his wife would have been freed when the case came to trial in 1847, however there was a problem of hearsay evidence in the case and the judge declared it a mistrial. It was not until three years later in 1850 that the court was able to correct the problem and unfalteringly sided with the Scott's and ordered them freed, citing that once he had been in free territory, he was indirectly freed and remained freed.
By this time Mrs. Emerson had married, moved to New England with her new husband, and left these affairs and ownership of the Scotts to her brother, John F. A. Sanford. After Scott was declared free by the courts, Sanford sought an appeal from the Missouri Supreme Court. In 1852 in, Scott v. Emerson, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision by the lower court seeing this case now not as the freeing of one slave but as a threat towards the institution of slavery. Basically, the court replaced the notion of "once free, always free" with an opposite, pro-slavery rhetoric as the new "law" of Missouri. Scott's lawyers then decided to appeal this case to the U.S. Supreme Court as Scott v. Sandford (there was a clerical error in which Sanford's name was misspelled in the court records).
THE FEDERAL CASE
The case went to the Supreme Court in 1856, and was actually, under orders of the Court itself, argued twice - first in February and then in December of the same year - in the exact same manner. Scott's argument was that he in fact had been freed when brought to the free state of Illinois and should no longer be a slave, in effect what the Missouri Circuit Court ruled before being overturned by that state's supreme court. Sanford argued that Scott, because he was a Negro and a slave, could not be a citizen at all and therefore had no right to sue him in either a state or federal court. It is imperative that we realize that when this case came to the Court the question of slavery, particularly in the western territories, had become the central political issue of the decade. People were killing each other over popular sovereignty in Kansas after the Kansas-Nebraska Act which would allow those states to become slave states if the majority chose to. Kansas became known as "Bleeding Kansas" because there was literally a mini-civil war within the state over the issue. Also, in the North, the newly-formed Republican party was vehemently opposed to the spread of slavery and was gaining enormous support.
Initially, it appeared as though precedent and judicial restraint were going to prevail in this case. In Strader v. Graham (1851), the Court had ruled that each state had a right to decide for itself the status of persons under its jurisdiction. The Court was prepared, under these two principles, to dismiss the case and uphold the ruling of the Missouri Supreme Court, of which Justice Samuel Nelson was prepared to write an opinion that would avoid any controversial questions regarding slavery. However, Justice James M. Wayne from Georgia suggested that it was time for the Court to deal with this issue which had previously been avoided by the Court at every step. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was to write a new opinion, which he delivered on March 6, 1857.
In this case, Taney and six other justices declared Scott to still be a slave for several reasons. First of all, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was effectively declared unconstitutional because congress, according to Taney, did not have the power, under the Constitution, to abolish slavery in certain territories. Therefore, Scott had actually never been free because the act forbidding slavery in the territories he was taken to was unconstitutional. Also, freeing slaves in the territories constituted a taking of property without due process, which violated the Fifth Amendment. This was the Court's first use of the notion of substantive due process. Thirdly, blacks, although seen as citizens of certain states, could not be citizens of the United States, and therefore did not have the right to sue in federal courts. Here the U.S. Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction, and the case could therefore be dismissed. Taney was also under the belief that when the Constitution was written, blacks were universally seen as inferior beings. Taney writes in his opinion that blacks
"…are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the words "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of
the rights and p
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