- Published: January 25, 2022
- Updated: January 25, 2022
- Language: English
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Slavery in the United States is most historically notorious for its inherent injustice toward blacks. In the decades prior to the Civil War, the slavery controversy carried increasing political weight. Proslavery and antislavery factions began to consider how slavery fit into the United States’ political and historical background. 1 Accelerating expansionism in the 1840s revived conflicts earlier settled by the 1820 Missouri Compromise. 2 The Liberty Party formed to advocate the total elimination of slavery.
Although abolitionists were effective as social agitators, they were less skilled in political organization. The Liberty Party reached its peak of influence in the presidential election of 1844 and still only received 62, 300 of the votes, about 2. 3%. The total elimination of slavery was too radical for the majority to accept. Less radical movements took hold in the Free-Soil and Republican parties that opposed the further expansion of slavery but accepted its place in the Union. 3 The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opened another battleground to the controversy.
By leaving the slavery question up to popular sovereignty, Congress initiated a race between abolitionist and proslavery forces to control Kansas. Abolitionists encouraged free-soil advocates from New England and New York state to move to Kansas. Ministers like Henry Ward Beecher supported this emigration and encouraged their parishioners to help fund free-soil advocates. Meanwhile, proslavery forces urged slaveowners to relocate with their slaves. Southerners from Missouri and farther southeast made the move.
The resulting conflict and bloodshed between the two groups earned the area the nickname Bleeding Kansas. 4 The conflict moved physically to Congress on May 22, 1856 when South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks brutally assaulted Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner for his anti-slavery criticism. Mass protests in Boston and New York City coincided with widespread southern applause. 5 The nation tipped ever more precariously toward its breaking point. In the midst of the conflict, a slave’s quest for freedom would ultimately help to push the nation over the edge.
The seeds of the legal catastrophe of the Dred Scott Decision were sown when in 1834, Doctor John Emerson bought his slave Etheldred “ Dred” Scott from the Peter Blow family in St. Louis, Missouri. Although there were many patients in need of treatment for a variety of illnesses in St. Louis, most could not afford payment. Thus Emerson’s medical practice in St. Louis was unprofitable, and he sought the reliable salary of a position with the Army Medical Department. With the help of his numerous political connections and their recommendations, Emerson was assigned a post at Fort Armstrong at Rock Island, Illinois.
Seeking a servant and general assistant, Emerson bought Scott shortly before he assumed his duties at Fort Armstrong. 6 Despite Illinois’s status as a free state and provisions against slavery in its state constitution as such, Emerson and Scott remained at Fort Armstrong for two years for the term of the doctor’s duty. 7 In 1836, the removal of the Sac and Fox Indian nations from the area eliminated the need for a fort at Rock Island. 8 Emerson was subsequently transferred to Fort Snelling, located in Wisconsin Territory in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase, today in Minnesota.
They arrived on May 8, 1836 with the Fifth Infantry. 9 In 1835, Major Lawrence Taliaferro of the United States Army brought his slave Harriet Robinson to Fort Snelling. He sold and delivered Harriet to Emerson the next year. Despite a sizable age difference, Dred Scott and Harriet married with Emerson’s consent in a formal ceremony. They would later have two daughters together, Eliza the elder, and Lizzie the younger by about seven years. 10 By 1840, the departure of Taliaferro as the head of the Indian Agency and increasing violence between the Ojibwa and the Sioux left the Fort in a state of increasing deterioration.
As the officers and their families gradually diminished in number, Emerson ended his work on May 29. Dred and Harriet Scott likely did not object to returning to St. Louis with the doctor. Most of their friends and acquaintances already left, and without Emerson, they had no guaranteed shelter in the coming winter months. 11 In truth, Emerson represented the class of masters who had a high regard for his slaves and, as a result, treated them exceptionally well. He once physically fought with the young lieutenant McPhail to secure a stove for the warmth and comfort of the Scotts in the winter.
The luxury of a stove was generally enjoyed only by officers and enlisted men with wives, and so Emerson’s efforts on behalf of the Scotts were all the more notable. 12 In 1843, Emerson died, leaving his estate and slaves to his daughter and wife, Irene Emerson nee Sanford. After this transfer, Scott tried to buy his family freedom from Mrs. Emerson for several years, and failed. With the support of his old owners and longtime friends in the Blow family, Scott sued Mrs. Emerson in April 1846 for his freedom in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County.
The plaintiffs argued that Scott’s residence in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory made him free. Despite losing this 1846 suit, they won the 1850 retrial with the Circuit Court. Dred Scott was temporarily free. 13 Mrs. Irene Emerson was, of course, not satisfied with the verdict, which resulted in the forfeiture of her property. She appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, which in 1852 reversed the ruling by a two to one decision in the case Scott v. Emerson. The significance of the reversal lies in the fact that Dred Scott’s case was not unique.
Many other slaves had sued for their freedom on similar grounds in Missouri and won. 14 In fact, the Missouri Supreme Court even acknowledged this inconsistency in the published report of Scott v. Emerson by listing those successful cases and attempting to explain the comparative deficiencies in the merit of the Scott case. In the strikingly similar Rachael v. Walker, the slave Rachael was manumitted because unlike Emerson, the officer Walker did not personally buy the slave in St. Louis. Rather, while in Michigan Territory, Rachael was bought on his behalf and sent to him. 5 The Missouri Supreme Court listed three conditions that, if true, meant the Scotts were still slaves. These were that Dr. Emerson owned them before his order to Illinois, that he took them along as domestic servants, and that they remained at the posts until they voluntarily returned to St. Louis, a city in the slave state of Missouri. 16 The reasoning in this part of the ruling is erroneous in that Dr. Emerson did not acquire ownership of Harriet until his stationing at Fort Snelling.
Perhaps the most important argument proposed by the Court in Scott v. Emerson, surely that which later became most prominent, involved the principle of comity, namely, the courtesy of one nation to honor the laws and institutions of another. The Court argued that the principle of comity could be applied not only to nations, but also to the states of the Union. Each state had the right to determine the degree to which they would honor another’s laws in a spirit of comity. After all, state laws technically only carried legal force within that state.
The Court’s domain was enforcement of Missouri law, and so the choice to honor Illinois laws depended on their conformity to those of Missouri. The Court was definitely not responsible to obey hostile laws, or laws that would result in the forfeiture of a citizen’s property. Thus the Court classified Illinois emancipation laws as penal codes they were not obligated to honor. 17 Still, the unusual defeat was decidedly political. The Court justified the reduction in its observance of comity with the growing national division over slavery. In any event, Mrs.
Irene Emerson remarried Calvin C. Chaffee and moved to Massachusetts with him soon after the overturn. 18 She transferred ownership of Dred Scott and his children to her brother, John F. A. Sanford. Dred Scott’s lawyer was thus able to bring suit once again in the Circuit Court against a new defendant in 1853 under the diverse citizenship clause of the Constitution. When it failed in 1854, the decision was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on a writ of error. 19 Montgomery Blair, distinguished attorney, agreed to represent the plaintiffs and filed his brief on February 7, 1856.
Of the ten pages, only four were dedicated to reversing the lower court’s decision against Dred Scott’s right to freedom. The remaining six pages focused on proving his eligibility to bring suit, and that free blacks were citizens at least to the extent of having that ability, despite the Circuit Court having already affirmed this point. The defendant, John Sanford, also conceded this plea in abatement by passive acknowledgement when his lawyer returned to the merits of the case in the lower court. 20 He thus waived his right to reopen the technical question to the Supreme Court.
Essentially, Blair spent more time arguing a point already won than that which was important to winning Dred Scott’s freedom. He also introduced the legal risk of reconsidering the plea in abatement. 21 This questionable strategy was likely the result of the influence of his friend Roswell Field. Field wrote to Blair out of antislavery interest in obtaining the Supreme Court’s affirmation on the question of the plea in abatement, that is, the free black’s right to sue. He reasoned such a ruling would weaken the Fugitive Slave Law for southern masters. 2 In this way, the Dred Scott case was introduced to new political associations. For the defendant, Henry Sheffie Geyer and Reverdy Johnson spoke beginning February 11, 1856. Though their exact arguments are lost, it is clear that they addressed the plea in abatement and, for the first time, the question of the constitutionality of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. 23 The Dred Scott case was consequently entangled with the political tensions of the nation. The Supreme Court thus faced many difficult legal questions. Was Dred Scott a citizen of Missouri, and therefore eligible to litigate?
Was he freed by his time in the State of Illinois and Wisconsin Territory? Were antislavery laws constitutional? 24 The Court was also divided over the plea in abatement and the formidable question of a broad ruling on the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Although the Court initially tried to avoid a broad ruling, the justices with southern interests were forced to counteract Justice John McLean of Ohio and Justice Benjamin R. Curtis of Massachusetts, who planned to argue in favor. Thus, the Court was evenly divided four to four with Justice Samuel Nelson of New York reluctant to take a side.
On May 12, 1856, the Court postponed the case to the next term to argue whether to review the plea in abatement, and, if so, to then discuss the related circuit court ruling. 25 Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney of Maryland preemptively defended the decision to postpone the case, and rightly so. Historians often accuse the Supreme Court of delivering a politically charged passivity. By postponing the case, they avoided a controversial decision on the eve of the 1856 presidential election. Some argue they also meant to possibly conceal proslavery Democratic tendencies. 6 On the other hand, Taney’s reasoning was that a delay would give the various points of contention “ a more deliberate consideration. ” 27 The argument of the case resumed the next term on December 15, 1856. In addition to the original three attorneys on the case, George T. Curtis joined Blair on the side of the plaintiffs. 28 On the subject of the plea in abatement, Blair repeated that the point was moot when Sanford moved to argue the case on its merits, while Geyer maintained that the circuit court’s decision must be reviewed to determine if the case was even eligible to be brought to a federal court.
The remainder of Blair’s arguments were significantly more thoughtful and effective than those of his February brief. On the subject of citizenship, Blair referenced the usage of the term “ free citizens” in the Articles of Confederation. When the question arose asking if non-whites were excluded from that term, two votes of eight to two resoundingly denied that definition. He reasoned the Constitution upheld this principle in substance if not in explicit language since no such clarifying vote was held at the time.
He also pointed out that although blacks were denied certain political functions such as voting and officeholding, they still retained certain rights including property ownership, business, and legal recourse in court, and were therefore citizens. 29 Geyer’s argument on citizenship held that freedom itself was not equivalent to citizenship, and therefore free blacks were not necessarily citizens. Only naturalization would in that case award citizenship, and it came from the federal government. He also stated that federal and state citizenship were two different statuses and that Dred Scott had neither. 0 On the merits of the case, Geyer introduced the argument that Dr. Emerson and Dred Scott were merely sojourners and not residents at the military posts and that therefore Dr. Emerson had not forfeited his ownership. He also reused the point that Dred Scott’s return to Missouri subjected him to a decision by Missouri law. 31 Blair denied the idea that they were sojourners, reasoning that they had assumed an established residence only at the military post and for periods of about two and four years.
Blair also pointed out that Missouri had defied many of its own legal precedents, invoking the numerous freedom cases from that state decided in favor of the plaintiff on the principle of comity. He also denied the characterization of the Illinois’s emancipation laws as punishment or penal justice. Because Dr. Emerson had voluntarily taken Dred Scott into free territory, interstate comity was binding. 32 By February 1857, the Supreme Court split largely down predictable sectional lines on the question of the constitutionality of the 1820 Missouri Compromise.
Five justices were from the South, the Chief Justice Taney from Maryland, James Moore Wayne from Georgia, John Catron from Tennessee, Peter Vivian Daniel from Virginia, and John Archibald Campbell from Alabama. They naturally decided it was unconstitutional. Curtis and McLean said the Compromise was constitutional, and Nelson and Justice Robert Cooper Grier of Pennsylvania were undecided. 33 The Court was concerned with how the public would receive a ruling of five southern justices in favor of the south, in terms of the Court’s reputation.
Grier was a northern justice they could possibly sway to their side, because he privately believed the Compromise was unconstitutional. Thus, to secure his support, Catron wrote to presidential candidate James Buchanan on February 19 and 23 to persuade Grier to join the five southern justices on their position concerning the Compromise. Buchanan promptly obliged and wrote to Grier. 34 As a result, Grier conferred privately with Taney and Wayne, who easily persuaded him. In Grier’s reply to Buchanan, he explained that he was interested in protecting the Court’s image and preventing equivocal arguments that would damage reputability.
He became the sixth justice to declare the Missouri Compromise ineffectual. It is ironic that Grier also described a fear of extremist southern viewpoints from the other five, as the Chief Justice would soon write just such an opinion. 35 Buchanan’s influence within the Supreme Court on the case is widely regarded as improper conduct by historians. On March 4, 1857, Buchanan gave his inaugural address just two days prior to the statement of the Dred Scott Decision. In the address, Buchanan assured that a decision on the question of slavery in the territories would promptly and rightfully be made by the Supreme Court.
The assurance appeared all the more scandalous to the attending onlookers when in a short pause of the ceremony Buchanan was seen quietly conferring with the Chief Justice Taney. In actuality, he already knew the nature of the impending decision as well as its broad rulings from his correspondence with Catron and Grier. 36 Buchanan was not alone in his prior knowledge of the case. By the end of December 1856, the case was the subject of national speculation and everywhere people had realized its potential consequences. Southern newspapers were already reporting with authority on specifics of the case.
An article in the Louisville Journal definitively described the essential points of interstate comity and Congress’s ability to prohibit slavery in the territories. The circumstances surrounding Dred Scott’s time in the North were widely known and the subject of public debate. Even the subtleties of the plea in abatement, the nature of the travels of Dr. Emerson and his slave, the force of antislavery laws, and constitutionality were identified by the end of 1856. 37 On March 6, 1857, the landmark decision on the case of Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford was officially handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Confirming the South’s hopes and also the North’s great fears, the decision included the broad ruling that Congress had no right to exclude slavery in territories acquired subsequent to the ratification of the Constitution. 38 The second important point involved the citizenship of blacks and their right to bring suit in a federal court. 39 In the long and extensive opinion of the court, Taney writes one of the most frequently and notoriously quoted passages associated with the Decision, that blacks at the time of the Constitution were “ considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings… subjugated by the dominant race. The rights or privileges they did enjoy were those allowed to them by the so-called dominant race. He reasons that because blacks were not considered citizens in the Constitution, they were thus not entitled to a citizen’s associated rights. 40 He also cites similar language in the Declaration of Independence asserting the equality and natural rights of all men. Although the participation in slavery of those involved with the Declaration seemed to contradict that assertion, Taney holds it can easily be explained that the men simply did not mean to include blacks in their statement of equality.
He suggests that the Court is primarily responsible for interpreting and upholding these documents, aside from any moral issues that may result. 41 Taney’s invalidation of the Missouri Compromise is presented mainly as a rebuttal to the free-soil argument that Congress is empowered by the Constitution to make regulations in the territory of the United States as needed. Taney claims that the territory referred only to that which the United States possessed at the time, a specific and definite area and not subsequent territories or multiple territories. 2 The other eight justices each submitted separate opinions with regard to Taney’s general statement, six concurring and two dissenting. Notable is Nelson’s qualified concurrence that had the same practical effect of ruling against the plaintiff, but different reasoning. Unlike Taney, Nelson supported the Missouri Supreme Court’s arguments on the merits of the case involving observance of comity. 43 Nelson and the two dissenting justices, Curtis and McLean, all considered the majority opinion on the Missouri Compromise not within the Court’s necessary ruling.
Curtis said that the ruling against the plaintiff on the grounds of the plea in abatement disqualified the court from passing any further meaningful judgments. He specifically labeled the Missouri Compromise rulings as obiter dicta, or statements of legal opinion that carry no real judicial authority. This line of argument would be used extensively by historians aiming to criticize the decision without appearing to defy the law the Supreme Court was entitled to set forth. 44 Public reaction on both sides of the slavery controversy was swift and passionate.
A New York Daily Times Article called the Decision the most important case ever tried so far in the Supreme Court. Its alarmist tone dramatically warned that as a result of the case, all anti-slavery legislation since the Constitution, in the history of the nation, was abolished. The article also accused the Court of authorizing the total spread of slavery in the United States under the authority of the Constitution. The power of both Congress and popular sovereignty to exclude slavery in the territories was annulled.
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