Lessons Of Dred Scott

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In a bizarre turn, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1857, reporters discovered that Irene Emerson had left St. Louis and remarried a Massachusetts Congressman who was an outspoken abolitionist. She apparently had not informed her husband of her slave-owning past and so abolitionist Congressman Calvin Chaffee awoke one morning to discover that he was married to the most famous slave owner in America. The editorial cries of “free soil hypocrite� forced the Chaffees to free Dred Scott and his family.

As Americans simultaneously celebrate Black History Month and await a major ideological shift on the Supreme Court, we should reflect on the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case. An ideological Supreme Court at a time of great national divisiveness ignited a political firestorm that set America on the path to the Civil War. 

As humble a litigant as could be imagined, Dred Scott was a slave in Missouri owned by a U.S. Army doctor, John Emerson, who took him to forts in free states and territories. During these travels, Scott found a wife, raised two children, and kept his family from being sold, no mean feat for a slave. After Dr. Emerson died, Scott, now back in Missouri, tried to buy his and his family’s freedom from the doctor’s widow, Irene Emerson. She refused to let the family go. 

Dred Scott then managed to find lawyers to bring case after case to win his family’s freedom. They based his claim on Missouri Supreme Court decisions that a slave who had lived with his master in a free state or territory was forever free. In 1850, he won his freedom after a trial in St. Louis. Irene Emerson appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which in 1852 reversed the trial court verdict. The Court repudiated its own prior decisions that had been the basis for Scott’s lawsuit. The opinion was filled with resentment at perceived Northern hypocrisy about slavery – “we will not go to them to learn law, morality or religion on the subject…�

There Dred Scott’s quest for freedom should have ended. But this persistent slave managed to find new lawyers to take up his cause. His adversary had also changed. Irene Emerson had re-married and left St. Louis, and now her brother, John Sanford, who lived in New York, owned the Scott family. The new lawyers filed a lawsuit against Sanford on the basis of the Constitution’s diversity clause, which gives federal courts jurisdiction over suits between citizens of different states. Scott, alleged to be a free citizen of Missouri, would be suing John Sanford, a citizen of New York. 

They lost in federal court in St. Louis and appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The case was argued in 1856 as Americans began to debate slavery with more than words. Bleeding Kansas erupted, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten on the floor of the United States Senate, and John Brown went on a murderous raid. The Chief Justice, Roger Taney of Maryland, was a bitter sectionalist, filled with anger at the North.

On March 6, 1857, before a packed courtroom and a riveted country, in a sweeping opinion authored by Taney, the Supreme Court held that negroes in bondage – which it termed “inferior beingsâ€? – were property without rights and that Congress had no power to limit the expansion of slavery. The Northern states exploded in outrage while the Southern states warned that the opinion had settled the slavery question and must be accepted or there would be “disunion.â€? The Democratic Party’s Northern and Southern wings split over the Dred Scott decision. Abraham Lincoln, in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates and his 1860 Cooper Union speech in New York City, campaigned against it. One historian later wrote that Roger Taney “elected Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency.â€? After the election, the Southern states left the Union and the Civil War, America’s defining moment, began. 

And what happened to Dred Scott? In a bizarre turn, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1857, reporters discovered that Irene Emerson had left St. Louis and remarried a Massachusetts Congressman who was an outspoken abolitionist. She apparently had not informed her husband of her slave-owning past and so abolitionist Congressman Calvin Chaffee awoke one morning to discover that he was married to the most famous slave owner in America. The editorial cries of “free soil hypocriteâ€? forced the Chaffees to free Dred Scott and his family. 

The emancipation of Dred Scott on May 26, 1857, made headlines throughout the nation. But the lesson of the Dred Scott case resonates today. The Supreme Court must act moderately and humbly lest delicate balances be upset. As Alexis de Toqueville presciently warned in 1840 in his book Democracy in America, “If the Supreme Court is ever composed of imprudent or bad men, the Union may be plunged into anarchy or Civil War.â€? He was proven right in the Dred Scott case. Let’s hope that never happens again.    
       
Wallance, a lawyer in New York City, is the author of the recently released “Two Men Before the Storm: Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.�

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