Friday, March 8, 2013

The Dred Scott Decision

March 7th marked 157th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision. The decision which has gone down in history as the Supreme Courts worst ruling ever.

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia around 1800, and was taken westward by his master, or as I prefer to call him, his captor, Peter Blow. Their journey took them to Alabama, then to St. Louis Missouri in 1830. Born around 1800, Scott migrated westward with his master, Peter Blow. They travelled from Scott's home state of Virginia to Alabama and then, in 1830, to St. Louis, Missouri. Two years later Peter Blow died. Scott was subsequently bought by army surgeon Dr. John Emerson, who later took Scott to the free state of Illinois. In the spring of 1836, after a stay of two and a half years, Emerson moved to a fort in the Wisconsin Territory, taking Scott with him. While there, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by a local justice of the peace. Ownership of Harriet was transferred to Emerson.
Scott's extended stay in Illinois, a free state, gave him the legal standing to make a claim for freedom, as did his extended stay in Wisconsin, where slavery was also prohibited. But Scott never made the claim while living in the free lands perhaps because he was unaware of his rights at the time. After two years, the army transferred Emerson to the south, first to St Louis, then to Louisiana. A little over a year later, when Emerson got married he had Scott and his wife relocate. Instead of staying in the free territory of Wisconsin, or going to the free state of Illinois, the two travelled over a thousand miles, apparently unaccompanied, down the Mississippi River to meet their captor. Only after Emerson's death in 1843, after Emerson's widow hired Scott out to an army captain, did Scott seek freedom for himself and his wife. First he offered to buy his freedom from Mrs. Emerson then living in St. Louis for $300. The offer was refused. Scott then sought freedom through the courts.
Scott went to trial in June of 1847, but lost on a technicality he couldn't prove that he and Harriet were owned by Emerson's widow. Their ability to prove this could have possibly been grounds for their freedom because she would have been able to substantiate the fact that Scott and his wife once lived in a "free territory". The following year the Missouri Supreme Court decided that the case should be retried. In an 1850 retrial, the the St Louis circuit court ruled that Scott and his family were free. Two years later the Missouri Supreme Court stepped in again, reversing the decision of the lower court. Scott and his lawyers then brought his case to a federal court, the United States Circuit Court in Missouri. In 1854, the Circuit Court upheld the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court. There was now only one other place to go. Scott appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court.
The nine justices of the Supreme Court of 1856 certainly had biases regarding slavery. Seven had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents from the South, and of these, five were from slave holding families. So the deck was stacked against Mr. Scott from the start. Still, if the case had gone directly from the state supreme court to the federal supreme court, the federal court probably would have upheld the state's ruling, citing a previously established decision that gave states the authority to determine the status of its inhabitants. But, in his attempt to bring his case to the federal courts, Scott had claimed that he and the case's defendant (Mrs. Emerson's brother, John Sanford, who lived in New York) were citizens from different states. The main issues for the Supreme Court, therefore, were whether it had jurisdiction to try the case and whether Scott was actually a citizen.

The decision of the court was read in March of 1857. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney who just happened to be a staunch supporter of slavery, wrote the "majority opinion" for the court. That is the equivalent of leaving a wolf in charge of the hen house. The decision stated that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, legislation which restricted slavery in certain territories, unconstitutional.

While the decision was well received by those who held Black people captive in the South, many northerners were outraged. The decision greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party and his subsequent election, which in turn led to the South's secession from the Union.

Peter Blow's sons, childhood friends of Scott, had helped pay Scott's legal fees through the years. After the Supreme Court's decision, they purchased Scott and his wife and set them free.

Unfortunately Dred Scott was only able to live free for 9 month's before he died.

The main idea of the Dred Scott decision was that Black people in America had no rights that whites were bound to acknowledge or respect because they were considered property unworthy of the same consideration of the citizenry.
Although rendered invalid by the 14th amendment which stated that anyone born in the United States is a natural citizen, the Dred Scott Decision was never over turned, or officially denounced by the Supreme Court.
While I was doing the research for this blog, I began to realize just how much I had been taking my freedom for granted, having never been subjected to the many atrocities or slavery or the distinct culture of hatred that my ancestors suffered through as a part of their mere existence here in America. Dred Scott's efforts have shown me that freedom is anything but free.


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