Supreme Court Cases

45.8 million slaves are still held today in a few countries most notably in Central and East Asia and Central Africa.  The bumpy path that led to the eradication of slavery in America was filled with compromises. This case involves one such compromise soon to be followed by the Civil War that claimed over 620,000 lives.

What’s at Stake

Judicial vs. Executive Power, States’ rights, Judicial Review

Who was Dred Scott?

Dred Scott was a second-generation slave in the United States and lived in Virginia.

Who was Sandford?

Sandford was the executor of the estate of Army Major John Emerson.

The History

The practice of slavery had existed since at least 3000 BC, and continued for centuries around the world involving many races. When the United States was formed in 1776 this practice, in the USA, began its slow transition to eradication.

The irony contained in the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal…” was not lost on the founders. But it did form the beginning of this transition, throughout the world.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 sought to quell growing anger between slave states and free states when new states or territories were being formed. The Compromise consisted of admitting Maine into the Union as a free state but Missouri as a slave state. This kept the balance of power in the US Senate equal between the two sides.

The Compromise also looked to the future as more territories and states would be seeking inclusion into the United States. In an attempt to keep both sides satisfied Congress established an East – West geographical line or division to separate future slave and free states. This line was the 36-degree, 30-minute north latitude (36.5 degree north latitude); north of that line a state or territory could only be a free state. South of that line slavery was legal.

But the dividing line ran through the already admitted state of Missouri so that state was excluded from the deal and slavery was allowed.

Dred Scott’s parents were first generation slaves in Virginia. Their son, Dred Scott, was sold to John Emerson who lived in Missouri. In his line of work Emerson and Scott traveled to many states, some that were declared slave free and some that were not.

John Emerson brought Scott along with him to the free state of Wisconsin and the free territory of Illinois. They also travelled to Louisiana, a slave state. In time, Scott married Harriet Robinson, another slave.
Major Emerson died and his wife, Eliza Sandford, inherited his estate and subsequently appointed her brother, John Sandford as the estate’s executor. At this point Dred Scott offered to purchase his freedom from Eliza. She refused.

Scott then sued, in Missouri, John Sandford for his freedom reasoning that since he had travelled to and resided in free states, he should be declared a free man based upon the Missouri Compromise. This case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The court decided to argue the case according to the law, not the immorality of slavery itself. The court’s arguments settled on whether Scott was an individual person or someone else’s property. If you are indeed a free person you can sue. If you are considered property you have no rights but what a state gives you and in a slave state you have no rights at all.

The court referenced the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” inferring that it did not include people who are considered property. The court also ruled that citizenship of any state does not automatically guarantee the full rights of U.S citizenship. Thus, slaves could not vote or sue within the federal court system but nevertheless were counted when states were apportioned representatives in Congress.

The Chief Justice, Roger B. Taney wrote that during the time the US Constitution was written slaves were considered property, not persons with rights, and it would have been unconstitutional, in 1857, to take away someone’s property without due process of law.

The Verdict

7-2 in favor of Sandford. Chief Justice Taney was reportedly anguished about this case as he thought it would precipitate a civil war if the majority ruled in favor of Scott. The decision however had the opposite effect. Both sides, proponents and opponents of slavery, dug their heals in deeper and became more antagonistic towards each other
The ruling stipulated that the federal government had no right to tell a state what to do in the case of slavery vs. free, effectively declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln, of the newly formed Republican party, was elected president and in 1861 the American Civil War began. By the end of the war about 650,000 soldiers had died. On January 1, 1863 Lincoln declared, by Executive Order, the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves. Dred Scott died in 1859 and Harriet died in 1876. A few descendants of Dred and Harriet Scott are alive today.