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The Infamous Dred Scott Decision

Updated on June 20, 2011

Dred Scott Versus Sanford

Dred Scott was an African American slave who sued for his freedom in the infamous Dred Scott versus Sanford case of 1857. He lost his case. Although he and his wife Harriet were slaves, they had lived in states and territories where slavery was illegal. It was the beginning of a complicated series of events which concluded with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1857, which hastened the start of the Civil War.

Dred Scott was born in Southhampton County, Virginia, in the 1790s as property of the Peter Blow family. Scott was originally named Sam and had an older brother named Dred. However, Dred died as a young man and Scott assumed his brother's name.

In 1830 the Blow family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Scott was sold to Army Doctor John Emerson. Scott accompanied Dr. Emerson as he worked throughout Illinois and the Wisconsin Territories, where slavery was prohibited.

In 1836, Dred Scott met a young slave girl named Harriet Robinson. Her owner was also an army officer who allowed them to marry. In order for them to be together, ownership of Harriet was given to Dr. Emerson.

Dred and Harriet Scott
Dred and Harriet Scott

Petitioned For Freedom

Soon after Dr. Emerson met and married Irene Sanford. The Emerson’s and Scotts returned to Missouri in 1842 where Dr. Emerson died the next year. It was at this time Scott asked Irene Emerson for his freedom. She refused.

In order to become free, Scott filed suit in 1846. The case was tried the following year at the Missouri State Courthouse in St. Louis. Scott lost the case. However, a second trial was granted. During that trial a jury decided the Scott’s should be freed because of their former residence in Illinois and Wisconsin. But the widow Emerson appealed and the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the lower court ruling. The Scotts were returned to their master's wife.

Under existing Missouri law, the powers of estate transferred to her brother, John Sanford. Since Sanford was a citizen of New York, Scott's counsel argued the case should be tried by Federal courts, on the grounds of “diverse citizenship.”

Therefore, they sued in a federal court. They lost again and appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney rendered a negative decision. The reasoning was attributed to the Constitution’s statutes concerning Africans and their descendents as well as other provisions and ordinances. Free or not, Africans were not considered American citizens.

In effect, the ruling said African American slaves had no claim to freedom. They were property, not citizens. Therefore, they could not bring suit in a federal court. The Scott’s were once again returned to Emerson's widow. Meanwhile, her brother John Sanford had been committed to an insane asylum.

In 1850, Irene Sanford Emerson remarried to Calvin C.Chaffee, a staunch abolitionist who shortly afterwards was elected to the United States Congress. Surprisingly Chaffee was completely unaware his wife owned the most well known slave in the United States until a month before the Supreme Court decision.

Chaffee was severely chastised for having married a slave owner. He persuaded Irene to return Scott to his original owners, the Blow family, who fortunately now were also abolitionists. As Missouri residents, they could free him, which they did.

Dred Scott was formally freed on May 26, 1857. He was employed as a porter in St. Louis for about seventeen months before dying from tuberculosis in September 1858. He was survived by his wife Harriet, and daughters Eliza and Lizzie Scott.

Scott was buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. A local tradition later developed…placing Lincoln pennies on top of his gravestone for good luck.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Dear Dee, I'm glad you recognize superior talent when you see it! LOL Thanks for the link.

    • Ms Dee profile image

      Deidre Shelden 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      I like this great description of this case! I'm going to link to it from the hub I'm currently writing :)

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Times change as well as some customs. I don't believe it was a custom to assume a brother's name. But people in those days changed their names for many different reasons. Some because the law was looking for them. Or perhaps he just didn't like the name Sam. Typical to analyze everything. LOL

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 7 years ago from South Africa

      This is an important piece of history! When we look back we have to be ashamed on behalf of our ancestors. Now how will those hundred years from now feel about us? Was it custom to assume the name of an older brother after his death?

    • profile image

      Errol Kane 7 years ago

      You did good. I appreciate the background and do you know something, I almost forgot about Dred Scott. I had to stop and re-acquaint myself with Dred Scott all over again.