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date: 26 February 2020

Scott, Dredfree

(1800–17 September 1858)
  • Walter Ehrlich

Scott, Dred (1800–17 September 1858), slave, was born of unknown parentage in Southampton County, Virginia, the property of plantation owner Peter Blow. After brief sojourns in Huntsville and Florence, Alabama, in 1830 the Blow family settled in St. Louis where, strapped for funds, Blow sold Scott to Dr. John Emerson. In 1833 Emerson’s career as army surgeon took him, among other places, to Illinois and to what was then a part of Wisconsin Territory (now Minnesota). Scott accompanied him into these areas, one a free state and one a territory that had been declared free by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1836 or 1837, while at Fort Snelling in Wisconsin Territory, Scott married Harriet Robinson, whose master, Major Lawrence Taliaferro, transferred her ownership to Emerson. Dred and Harriet Scott subsequently had two daughters. Posted in 1840 to the Seminole War in Florida, Emerson left his wife, Eliza Irene Sanford Emerson, and the slaves in St. Louis. Emerson returned the following year but died shortly thereafter.

The exact whereabouts of the Scotts for the next few years are uncertain, except that they were hired out to various people in St. Louis, a frequent experience for city-dwelling slaves. They seem also to have reestablished close relations with the Blow family, Dred’s former owners.

On 6 April 1846 Dred and Harriet Scott sued Irene Emerson for freedom. Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson was filed in a Missouri state court under Missouri state law. (Two separate litigations were pursued. Since both entailed the same law and evidence, only Dred’s advanced to conclusion; Harriet’s suit was held in abeyance, under agreement that the determination in her husband’s case would apply to hers.) Contrary to later widespread rumor, no political motivation attached to the institution of this suit; only when it reached the Missouri Supreme Court did it acquire the political overtones that made it so famous later. The suit was brought for one reason only: to secure freedom for Dred Scott and his family. Evidence suggests that Scott learned of his right to freedom from the white abolitionist lawyer Francis Butter Murdoch, recently moved to St. Louis from Alton, Illinois, where he had prosecuted criminal offenders in the Elijah P. Lovejoy riots and murders. Another possible instigator was the Reverend John R. Anderson, a former slave who was pastor of the Second African Baptist Church in St. Louis to which Harriet Scott belonged. Murdoch posted the necessary bonds and filed the legal papers that actually instituted the suit. Shortly thereafter, however, he moved to California.

Based on Missouri law and precedents, Scott’s case for freedom seemed incontrovertible. Earlier Missouri Supreme Court decisions had emancipated a number of slaves whose travels had taken them to free states or territories. Indeed, one of those cases was strikingly similar to Scott’s; that slave had also accompanied an army officer to the same military posts in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory as Dred Scott had done. Perhaps that explains why members of the Blow family so readily backed the slave’s case when Murdoch left St. Louis. Indeed, even as the litigation dragged on beyond what had promised to be a very quick solution, they continued to provide necessary legal and financial support.

Unanticipated developments converted an open-and-shut freedom suit into a cause célèbre. In the trial on 30 June 1847, the court rejected one piece of vital evidence on a legal technicality—that it was hearsay evidence and therefore not admissible—and the slave’s freedom had to await a second trial when that evidence could be properly introduced. It took almost three years, until 12 January 1850, before that trial took place, a delay caused by events over which none of the litigants had any control. With the earlier legal technicality corrected, the court unhesitatingly declared Dred Scott to be free.

But during the delay, money earned by the slaves had been held custodially by the local sheriff, to turn over to either the estate of the late John Emerson (which really meant to Irene Emerson, according to her husband’s will) or the freed slaves, depending upon the outcome of the suit. Though not a large sum, those accrued wages made ownership of the slaves more worthwhile in 1850 than they had in 1847. Meanwhile, Irene Emerson had left St. Louis to marry Dr. Calvin Clifford Chaffee, a Massachusetts abolitionist, who was unaware of the litigation involving his wife. She left her St. Louis affairs in the hands of her businessman-brother, John F. A. Sanford, who had earlier been named executor of Dr. Emerson’s estate. In Irene Emerson’s name, then, and hoping to secure the accumulated Scott family wages, Sanford’s attorneys appealed the freedom decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. But also during the delay, slavery had become a national issue of voluble divisiveness. In a singularly partisan 2-1 decision, which overturned long-standing “once free always free” judicial precedent—that once a slave resided in free territory with the knowledge and even tacit consent of the master, he or she became free by virtue of that residence and did not lose that freedom merely upon returning to a slave state—the Missouri Supreme Court on 22 March 1852 blatantly endorsed proslavery tenets, reversed the lower court, and remanded Dred Scott to slavery (Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson, 15 Missouri 576).

To clarify the “once free always free” doctrine based on freedom secured under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, friends of Scott instituted a new case in the federal courts, Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sanford. (Court records erroneously misspelled the name as “Sandford.”) Though often in St. Louis, Sanford was a legal resident of New York. Scott as a citizen of Missouri suing Sanford thereby created a “diversity” case—that is, a citizen of one state suing a citizen of another state—which could litigate in the federal courts. But it also created a new issue when Sanford’s attorneys claimed that Scott was not a citizen because he was “a negro of African descent” and therefore lacked the right to sue in the federal courts. Rather than deal with the matter on those jurisdictional grounds, the court found for Sanford, and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

There, nationally known legal figures argued the case: Montgomery Blair and George T. Curtis for Scott, and Reverdy Johnson and Henry S. Geyer for Sanford. The suit was argued twice, in February 1856 and in December 1856. Up to then virtually unknown, the case now aroused nationwide publicity and deep partisan interest. At first the Court exercised judicial restraint and thought cautiously to avoid controversial slavery matters. Prodded by pro-southern Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and associate justices James M. Wayne and Peter V. Daniel, and by antislavery associate justices John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis, the Court decided to deal with those explosive issues.

The famous—or infamous—decision, which remanded Dred Scott to slavery, was pronounced on 6 March 1857 by Chief Justice Taney. Each of the concurring and dissenting justices rendered a separate opinion (Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sanford, 19 Howard 393). Extreme proslavery and extreme antislavery views were expressed. According to Taney’s “Opinion of the Court,” blacks were not considered citizens of the United States. Slaves were property protected by the Constitution, and any law prohibiting slavery in the territories (e.g., the Missouri Compromise) was unconstitutional. Regardless of prior free or slave condition, the status of a person entering into a slave state depended on the law of that state.

The decision triggered violent reaction in an already tense sectional-ridden atmosphere. Fearing that it pushed American law close to legalizing slavery throughout the entire country, antislavery forces mounted unprecedented assaults on the decision and on the majority members of the Court. Proslavery forces responded with equal fervor to defend their cause. The tragic result was to split a divided country even more and push it closer to civil war.

As to the slaves themselves, they remained in St. Louis throughout all this litigation, working at various jobs. Legally, however, they had become the property of Dr. Chaffee, Irene Emerson’s second husband. Incredibly, though, he did not become aware of that consequence until just a week or two before the decision was announced, and his attorneys informed him that he could do nothing about that ownership until the litigation was concluded. Shortly after the Supreme Court announced its decision, the embarrassed Chaffee transferred his ownership to Taylor Blow in St. Louis—since by Missouri law a slave could be emancipated there only by a citizen of that state. Accordingly, on 27 May 1857 Blow executed the necessary documents to free the slaves. Scott lived only a year and a half longer, working most of that time as a porter in Barnum’s Hotel in St. Louis. There he died of tuberculosis. His remains are interred in St. Louis.


For the best-detailed account of the case’s development and of Dred Scott himself, see Walter Ehrlich, They Have No Rights: Dred Scott’s Struggle for Freedom (1979). Don E. Fehrenbacher’s The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (1978), which contains an exemplary analysis of the decision, examines that decision within the framework of the history of American slave litigation, as do William M. Wiecek, “Slavery and Abolition before the United States Supreme Court, 1820–1860,” Journal of American History 65, no. 1 (1978): 34–59, and Harold M. Hyman and William M. Wiecek, Equal Justice under Law: Constitutional Development, 1835–1875 (1982). See also David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (1976), and Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union (1981). The best brief account is Walter Ehrlich, “Dred Scott in History,” Westward 1, no. 1 (1983): 5–10, reprinted in Robert J. Maddox, ed., Annual Editions: American History, 12th ed. (1993).