Dred Scott, a slave and his wife Harriet petitioned for their freedom in 1846. Following Scott’s two trials, in 1847 and 1850, the Supreme Court made some decisions that accelerated the start of the American Civil War. Scott was born in Virginia in 1799 as a slave of the Peter Blow family. He spent his life as a slave and never learned how to read and write.
Dred was sold to Dr. John Emerson after the Blows moved to St. Louis. Dred Scott traveled with John Emerson to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was prohibited. During this time he married Harriet and had two children. The Scott family returned to St. Louis with Dr. Emerson. When Emerson died in 1843, Dred and his family were hired out by Mrs. Emerson to work for other families.
On April 6th 1846, Dred and Harriet filed suit for their freedom. It’s believed that they chose this period for three reasons; Dred was dissatisfied that he and his family were being hired out, Mrs. Emerson may have been planning to sell them, and Dred may have offered to buy his own freedom and been refused.
In 1847, the Scotts’ first case was dismissed. The court allowed the Scotts to refile their suit in the St. Louis Circuit Court, resulting in a second trial. The jury in the second trial proclaimed that Dred Scott and his family should be free. Mrs. Emerson appealed the case to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which reversed the ruling in 1852, returning Dred to slavery.
Scott filed suit against John F. A Sanford, Mrs. Emerson’s brother who was responsible for John Emerson’s estate. The court ruled against Scott, and Scott appealed to the U.S Supreme Court.
Seven out of nine judges of the US Supreme Court ruled that not only was Dred a slave, but that as a slave, Dred had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. The court ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in northern territories, was unconstitutional. Although Dred lived in northern territories, he had never earned his freedom.
The American public reacted very strongly to the ruling, fearing that this case would set precedent for all slaves, and that slavery would spread. The Republican Party, formed in 1854 to prohibit the spread of slavery, opposed the decision. In 1860, in a republican victory, Abraham Lincoln was elected as President leading to the secession of South Carolina from the Union. The Dred Scott decision had moved the nation to the brink of the war.
The Scotts were given back to the Blow family and they gave the Scotts freedom in May 1857.
Source: History of Dred Scott
Washington University Digital Library Services