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