Missouri's Dred Scott Case, 1846-1857

In its 1857 decision that stunned the nation, the United States Supreme Court upheld slavery in United States territories, denied the legality of black citizenship in America, and declared the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional. All of this was the result of an April 1846 action when Dred Scott innocently made his mark with an "X," signing his petition in a pro forma freedom suit, initiated under Missouri law, to sue for freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. Desiring freedom, his case instead became the lightning rod for sectional bitterness and hostility that was only resolved by war.

image of Dred Scott
Dred Scott
Credit: Missouri Historical Society

"Dred Scott, a man of color, respectfully states. he is claimed as a slave."
(Petition to Sue for Freedom, 6 April 1846)

Initially, Scott's case for freedom was routine and relatively insignificant, like hundreds of others that passed through the St. Louis Circuit Court. The cases were allowed because a Missouri statute stated that any person, black or white, held in wrongful enslavement could sue for freedom. The petition that Dred Scott signed indicated the reasons he felt he was entitled to freedom. Scott's owner, Dr. John Emerson, was a United States Army surgeon who traveled to various military posts in the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin Territory. Dred Scott traveled with him and, therefore, resided in areas where slavery was outlawed. Because of Missouri's long-standing "once free, always free" judicial standard in determining freedom suits, slaves who were taken to such areas were freed-even if they returned to the slave state of Missouri. Once the bonds of slavery were broken, they did not reattach.

Dred Scott was born to slave parents in Virginia sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. His parents may have been the property of Peter Blow, or Blow may have purchased Scott at a later date. The mystery of exact ownership is one that would follow Dred Scott, and later his family, throughout their lives as slaves. With few records extant, it is difficult to identify exactly when ownership of the family was transferred to various parties. By 1830, Peter Blow had settled his family of four sons and three daughters and his six slaves in St. Louis. This was after having moved from Virginia to Alabama, to attempt farming near Huntsville, and, when that failed, a move from Alabama to Missouri. In St. Louis, Peter Blow undertook the running of a boarding house, the Jefferson Hotel. Within a year, though, his wife Elizabeth died and on June 23, 1832, Peter Blow passed away.

image of front view of St. Louis
Front view of St. Louis
Credit: Missouri Historical Society

The Blow children remained in St. Louis after the deaths of their parents and became well established in the city's society through marriage to prominent families. Charlotte Taylor Blow married Joseph Charless, Jr., in November 1831; his father had established the first newspaper west of the Mississippi River and had been a leading opponent of slavery while editor. Charless, Jr., operated a wholesale drug and paint store, Charless & Company (later Charless, Blow, & Company when brothers-in-law Henry Taylor Blow and Taylor Blow became partners). Martha Ella Blow married attorney Charles Drake in 1835. Drake is better known in history for his role in the creation of Missouri's 1865 constitution. As a leader of the Radical Republican Party after the Civil War, he was determined to punish those considered Southern sympathizers; the constitution he helped author took away many of their rights, including enfranchisement. Peter Ethelrod Blow married Eugenie LaBeaume in 1833. She was from an old French banking family; her oldest brother was a wealthy businessman who, in partnership with Blow, formed Peter E. Blow & Company. She had two other brothers; one was the St. Louis County sheriff for a time in the 1840s, and one, Charles Edmund LaBeaume, was a St. Louis attorney who played an important role in Dred Scott's freedom suits. All of these St. Louis connections proved helpful to Dred Scott.

".the said Dr. John Emerson purchased your petitioner."
(Petition to Sue for Freedom, 6 April 1846)

One of Dred Scott's ownership mysteries concerns the date of his sale to Dr. John Emerson. It was sometime after the Blows arrived in St. Louis in 1830 and before Dr. Emerson reported to Fort Armstrong in Illinois on December 1, 1833. There is no extant record of the sale, although several theories have been posited. It is possible that Peter Blow sold Dred Scott to Emerson before his death. It is also possible that Blow's heirs sold him from the estate. On June 30, 1847, Henry Taylor Blow testified in Dred Scott's circuit court trial for freedom that Peter Blow sold Scott to Dr. Emerson. Emerson's attorneys did not object to this testimony or cross-examine Blow on its accuracy, so it is probable this is the manner in which the ownership of Dred Scott passed to Dr. Emerson.

John Emerson came to St. Louis sometime before August 1831. He served as a civilian doctor at Jefferson Barracks for a time before his October 25, 1833, appointment as an assistant surgeon in the United States Army. He left St. Louis on November 19, accompanied by Dred Scott, to report for duty at Fort Armstrong, Illinois (the stay referred to in court documents as Rock Island). Emerson's assignment lasted for nearly three years and, under the conditions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, entitled Dred Scott to his freedom. That ordinance prohibited slavery in regions between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and the Great Lakes, except as punishment for crimes. In addition, when the state of Illinois was created from part of the Northwest Ordinance territory in 1818, the state constitution prohibited slavery.

".and there kept petitioner to labor and service."
(Petition to Sue for Freedom, 6 April 1846)

Living at Rock Island was Dred Scott's first chance to sue for his freedom, assuming he knew he had that right. He did not sue, though, and in May 1836, traveled with Dr. Emerson to Fort Snelling when Emerson was transferred. Fort Snelling was located in the newly created Wisconsin Territory (part of the Iowa Territory after 1838), on the west bank of the Mississippi River. The journey and residence at Fort Snelling was Dred Scott's second chance to sue for freedom. Now he was resident in a territory that was governed by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery north of 36° 30' except within the boundaries of the state of Missouri. Again, though, he did not pursue his opportunity to sue for freedom based on this residence.

image of Harriet Scott
Harriet Scott
Credit: Missouri Historical Society

In either 1836 or 1837, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, a teen-aged slave owned by Major Lawrence Taliaferro, Indian agent for the territory. Unusual for slave weddings was the fact that an actual civil ceremony took place. Taliaferro was a justice of the peace and performed the wedding. At some point, ownership of Harriet was transferred to Emerson, although the record is unclear as to how this came about-another ownership mystery of the Scott family.

On October 20, 1837, Emerson left Fort Snelling for assignment to St. Louis, which he had repeatedly requested. He traveled from the fort by canoe because the upper Mississippi River was already frozen and steamboats were not making the trip. Due to the mode of travel, he left behind most of his possessions, including Dred and Harriet Scott. The Scotts were left in the care of someone else, to be hired out until Emerson could make arrangements to send for them. They had opportunity to escape slavery by running away in his absence, but they did not. Nor did they attempt to sue for their freedom during this time.

Almost immediately upon arriving in St. Louis, Emerson was transferred to Fort Jesup, Louisiana. He arrived there on November 22, 1837. The assignment lasted less than a year, but during that time in Louisiana he met Eliza Irene Sanford (known as Irene) of St. Louis; she was visiting her sister Mary, who was married to Captain Henry Bainbridge, also assigned to Fort Jesup at the time. Emerson married Irene on February 6, 1838. In April 1838, at Emerson's request, Dred and Harriet Scott traveled to Louisiana, thus voluntarily returning to a slave state. That September, the Emersons and the Scotts returned to St. Louis for a brief stay, then traveled back to Fort Snelling in October. On that October trip back to Fort Snelling, Eliza Scott, named for her mistress, was born on the steamer Gipsey, captained by Thomas Gray, north of the boundary of 36° 30' , in free territory. The group remained at Fort Snelling until May 1840.

".Emerson was ordered to Florida. and left petitioner."
(Petition to Sue for Freedom, 6 April 1846)

On May 29, 1840, Emerson was transferred to Florida, where the Seminole War was being fought. He left his wife and slaves in St. Louis, where Irene Emerson's father, Alexander Sanford, resided on his plantation, called California, in north St. Louis County; Sanford owned four slaves. Dred and Harriet Scott were hired out to various people during that time. Emerson was honorably discharged from the United States Army in August 1842. He returned to St. Louis but, unable to maintain a successful private practice in the city, settled permanently in Davenport, Iowa, on land he purchased in 1835. He began practice there in the summer of 1843. Irene Emerson joined him and gave birth to their daughter Henrietta in November 1843. On December 29, 1843, Emerson died suddenly; he was forty years old. The official cause of death was listed as consumption, but it is possible he died of complications from syphilis. An inventory of his Iowa estate mentioned slaves, but the inventory is no longer extant, so it is impossible to determine if this reference was to the Scott family. There is no mention of any slaves in Emerson's Missouri estate inventory, although it is likely that Dred and Harriet Scott were living in or around St. Louis, hired out. After Emerson's death, Irene Emerson returned to St. Louis with her daughter and lived with her father. His proslavery sentiments probably influenced many of her decisions after Dred and Harriet Scott filed for freedom.

By March 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott were hired out to Samuel Russell; he was the owner of a wholesale grocery, Russell & Bennett, located on Water Street in St. Louis. At some prior point, Dred Scott had been in the service of Irene Emerson's brother-in-law, Captain Henry Bainbridge. Later reports claim that he traveled with Bainbridge to Corpus Christi, Texas, but returned to St. Louis at the outbreak of the Mexican War. No mention of this travel is made in official court documents. There is no mention of where Harriet and Eliza Scott were during the time that Dred Scott was with Bainbridge.

".He is entitled to his freedom."
(Petition to Sue for Freedom, 6 April 1846)

On April 6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott each filed separate petitions in suits against Irene Emerson in the St. Louis Circuit Court to obtain their freedom from slavery. These documents, identical in nature, stated that the petitioners were entitled to their freedom based on residences in the free state of Illinois (Rock Island) and the free Wisconsin Territory (Fort Snelling).

The suits were brought under a Missouri statute that specifically allowed anyone held wrongfully in slavery to sue for their freedom. Specific procedures for filing suit were outlined in the statute. First, a petition to sue was filed in the circuit court. If the petition contained sufficient evidence that the plaintiff was being wrongfully held, the judge ordered that the petitioner be allowed to sue; security for all court costs that might be adjudged had to be presented to the court. The judge would also order that the petitioner have liberty to attend to counsel and court, and not be removed from the jurisdiction of the court, or subjected to any severe punishment because of the freedom suit. Although proslavery in sentiment, Judge John M. Krum approved the form of the petitions, which Dred and Harriet Scott signed with their marks, an "X," and granted them permission to sue.

"It shall be lawful for any person held in slavery to petition the general court."
(Laws of the Territory of Louisiana, 27 June 1807)

The statute required that the action taken be an action of trespass for false imprisonment. It went on to require that "The declaration shall be in the common form of a declaration for false imprisonment, and shall contain an averment, that the plaintiff, before and at the time of the committing of the grievances, was, and still is, a free person, and that the defendant held, and still holds, him in slavery." Clearly, Missouri law accommodated the pursuit of freedom under certain circumstances. As historian Don E. Fehrenbacher stated: "Anyone familiar with Missouri law could have told the Scotts that they had a strong case. Again and again, the highest court of the state had ruled that a master who took his slave to reside in a state or territory where slavery was prohibited thereby emancipated him" (Fehrenbacher 130).

Dred and Harriet Scott had no political motivation to pursue freedom. No one questioned their legitimate right to their freedom based on extended residence in free areas. That uncertainty had been resolved with the Missouri Supreme Court's 1824 decision in Winny v. Whitesides, where a mandate of "once free, always free" became standard judicial practice. Established legal precedents, however, no longer reflected what became an increasingly proslavery judicial attitude. From 1844 to 1846, twenty-five freedom suits had been filed in the St. Louis Circuit Court; only one resulted in freedom.

Dred and Harriet Scott's first attorney, in what became a long legal journey, was Francis B. Murdoch, who had moved to St. Louis from Alton, Illinois, in 1841. Murdoch was Alton's prosecuting attorney when abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy was killed by a mob there in 1837. He may have connected with the Scott family through John R. Anderson who was minister of the Second African Baptist Church that Harriet Scott attended in St. Louis. Anderson had also lived in Alton; in fact, he had been Lovejoy's typesetter and was in Alton the night proslavery mobs destroyed the newspaper office and killed Lovejoy. Anderson returned to St. Louis soon after and began helping slaves pursue their freedom whenever he could. There is no definitive evidence of the Murdoch-Anderson connection in assisting the Scott family. However, Murdoch did help the Scotts initiate their freedom suits, and posted the required security for them. For some reason, he moved to California in 1847 before their cases came to trial.

".at the office of Charles D. Drake. depositions will be taken."
(Notice to take Depositions, 10 May 1847)

image of Charles Drake
Charles Drake
Credit: Missouri Historical Society

At this point, the Blow family, children of Dred Scott's former owner, became involved in the freedom suits, providing both financial and legal assistance. There are no known motivations for their involvement in the cases. The family may have felt some obligation to a former slave. It is probable that Charlotte Blow Charless, as the family matriarch, requested her brother-in-law Charles Drake's assistance with Dred and Harriet Scott's freedom suits when Murdoch left. Drake was the widower of Martha Ella Blow and, after her death, his unmarried sister-in-law, Elizabeth Blow, cared for the two young Drake children, keeping Drake in close contact with the Blow family. At this time, the future emancipator, described as intense and intelligent, supported slavery. It is not certain that Drake ever represented the Scotts in court, but he did a thorough job of taking depositions and positioning the case for its St. Louis trial. He temporarily moved to Cincinnati, his family's home, in June 1847, which once more left Dred and Harriet Scott without an attorney.

Again, there is no documentary evidence of how the Scotts' third attorney became involved, but circumstantial facts reveal a possible scenario. Samuel Mansfield Bay, a New Yorker by birth, and former Missouri legislator and attorney general, became the attorney of record in June 1847. He was the attorney for the Bank of Missouri where Joseph Charless, Jr., husband of Charlotte Blow Charless, was an officer. Charless, Jr., signed as security for Dred Scott on legal documents. It is possible Charless asked Bay to become involved in the Scotts' freedom suits.

"You are hereby commanded, that setting aside all manner of excuse and delay,
you appear before our Circuit Court."
(Writ of Summons, 24 June 1847)

The case came to trial on June 30, 1847, in the St. Louis circuit court. Judge Alexander Hamilton presided over the trial. In a fortuitous turn of events, he had replaced the proslavery Judge Krum; Hamilton's general sympathy toward slave freedom suits was favorable to Dred and Harriet Scott. George Goode represented Irene Emerson. Missouri law was clearly on the side of the Scott family. All Bay had to do was prove that Emerson had taken Dred Scott, and then Harriet, to reside on free soil, making them free by Missouri law, and that after Emerson's death, his widow claimed and held them as slaves in Missouri.

There were many precedents in Missouri law upholding the "once free, always free" judicial practice. There was the cornerstone case of Winny v. Whitesides (1824), which held that a person held in slavery in Illinois then brought to Missouri was entitled to freedom based on that residence. That decision was followed just a few years later by Merry v. Tiffin & Menard (1827) which held that residence in any territory where slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 worked a slave's freedom. The validity of the Northwest Ordinance slavery prohibition was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in their 1828 decision in LaGrange v. Chouteau and again in Theoteste alias Catiche v. Chouteau (1829). That residence in Illinois worked a slave's freedom was upheld in numerous Court decisions, including Julia v. McKinney (1833) Nat v. Ruddle (1834) and Wilson v. Melvin (1837). The fact that Dr. Emerson was resident at a military post did not prevent emancipation, according to the Court's 1837 determination in Rachel v. Walker. Between 1837 and 1846, there were no new decisions made by the Missouri Supreme Court to overturn the clearly-established doctrine of "once free, always free."

On the day of the trial, Henry Taylor Blow testified that his father had sold Dred Scott to Dr. John Emerson. Witness depositions from both military posts established the fact that Dred and Harriet Scott had resided at the posts as slaves in service to Dr. Emerson. Catherine Anderson, the wife of a Fort Snelling officer, testified in her May 10, 1847, deposition that she had hired Harriet Scott for two or three months and stated that she knew others who had hired the Scotts while Dr. Emerson was stationed at Fort Jesup in Louisiana. Miles H. Clark, deposed on May 13, 1847, stated that while he was stationed at both Fort Armstrong (Rock Island) and Fort Snelling, he knew Emerson claimed Dred Scott as a slave and used him as such. Samuel Russell of St. Louis testified in court that he had hired Dred and Harriet Scott from Irene Emerson and paid her father, Alexander Sanford, for their services.

On cross-examination, though, Goode revealed that Russell's wife Adeline had, in fact, made the arrangements to hire Dred and Harriett from Irene Emerson; all Samuel Russell had done was pay money to Sanford. His testimony was dismissed as hearsay and did not prove to the jury that Irene Emerson held the Scotts as slaves. Because of this technicality, the jury returned a verdict against the Scotts-they remained in slavery. There was no question at this point as to the validity of the Northwest Ordinance slavery prohibition, or the similar prohibition in the 1820 Missouri Compromise. The jury did not deny "once free, always free"-they simply did not hear testimony sufficient to prove that Irene Emerson claimed Dred and Harriet Scott as her slaves. When Hamilton instructed the jury that Samuel Russell's testimony was inadmissible, they returned a verdict for Emerson.

".the plaintiff. moves the Court to set aside the verdict rendered."
(Motion for New Trial, 30 June 1847)

Bay moved for a new trial, arguing that the Scott family should not remain in slavery because of a technicality in the legal proceedings that could be easily remedied. Hamilton granted a new trial in December 1847, but not before Goode filed a bill of exceptions to the motion for a new trial, resulting in the case being taken on a writ of error to the Missouri Supreme Court; sitting were justices William Napton, William Scott, and Priestly H. McBride. A transcript of the circuit court trial was filed in Jefferson City on March 6, 1848. The case was argued on written briefs only; no oral statements were made. At this point, Alexander P. Field and David N. Hall represented Dred Scott. Field was an expert trial lawyer and prominent figure in Illinois and Wisconsin politics; little is known about Hall. Like Bay, the two attorneys had shared office space with Peter E. Blow's brother-in-law, Charles Edmund LaBeaume.

By the time the Missouri Supreme Court was prepared to hear the case on April 3, 1848, Judge Hamilton had already granted the new trial. As a result, Judge William Scott issued the unanimous decision on June 30, 1848, that there was "no final judgment upon which a writ of error can only lie," because the new trial had not taken place yet. Again, there was no consideration of the political implications of slavery in the territories; the case was still simply a suit for freedom, with the outcome still to be determined by St. Louis courts.

On March 17, 1848, before the next trial took place, Irene Emerson had the sheriff of St. Louis County take charge of the Scott family. He was responsible for their hiring out, and maintained the wages until such a time as the outcome of the freedom suit was determined (custody of the Scott family would remain with the St. Louis County sheriff until March 18, 1857). Beginning in 1851, Charles Edmund LaBeaume hired Dred and Harriet Scott from the sheriff; they worked for him for the next seven years. Sometime in 1849 or 1850, Irene Emerson moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and married Dr. Calvin C. Chaffee in November 1850. Chaffee, an abolitionist apparently unaware of his wife's involvement in a slave freedom suit, was elected to the United States Congress shortly after his marriage to Irene Emerson.

"If the jury believe from the evidence."
(Jury Instructions, 1850)

image of St. Louis Couthouse
St. Louis Courthouse
Credit: Missouri Historical Society

Although Hamilton had granted a new trial on December 2, 1847, there was a lengthy delay before it actually took place. First, the case's detour to the Missouri Supreme Court took place in the spring and summer of 1848. Upon its return to the St. Louis Circuit Court, it was docketed for February 27, 1849, but postponed because of a heavy court schedule. This happened again when a court date of May 2, 1849, was set. The possibility of a trial in late May was denied when a fire swept through St. Louis on May 17, bringing most business in the city to a complete halt. A cholera outbreak in the summer delayed proceedings further. The case was finally heard on January 12, 1850, with Judge Alexander Hamilton presiding. The attorneys for Dred Scott were Field and Hall, who had represented him in the Missouri Supreme Court. In 1849, Hugh Garland and Lyman D. Norris replaced Emerson attorney George Goode. Garland was a Virginian by birth and had served in that state's legislature. Little is known about Norris' background, except that he was staunchly pro-slavery and never established a residence in St. Louis.

Field and Hall established the Scotts' residence in a free state and territory; at this point, there were still two separate cases, one for Dred Scott and one for Harriet Scott. The depositions of Catherine Anderson and Miles H. Clark were again presented. This time, though, a deposition of Adeline Russell was included, indicating that she made arrangements with Irene Emerson to hire the slaves Dred and Harriet Scott. Samuel Russell appeared in court to testify that he paid for the hiring of the slaves. The technicality that had cost freedom at the 1847 trial was now rectified.

For their case, Garland and Norris claimed that Irene Emerson had every right to hire out her slaves. They stated that while Dr. Emerson was residing at Fort Armstrong (Rock Island) and Fort Snelling, he was under military jurisdiction-not the civil law that prohibited slavery in those areas. Military law, they claimed, superceded civil law and therefore Dred and Harriet Scott were not free. This argument of military and civil law had already been presented to the Missouri Supreme Court in Rachel v. Walker (1837) and the Court determined at that time that the argument did not apply. Garland and Norris ignored this precedent, though, in an effort to protect Emerson's property interests.

With the new testimony from Adeline Russell proving that Irene Emerson claimed and held Dred and Harriet Scott as slaves, and with favorable instructions from Judge Hamilton, the jury found for the plaintiffs. Dred Scott and his family were free. Following the procedures outlined by Missouri law, they won freedom just like many other slaves had done previously in the state. The case was obviously not yet the lightning rod in the fight over slavery politics that it later became.

".the decision of the Supreme Court. shall also decide
and conclude the case of the said Harriet, his wife."
(Stipulation, 12 February 1850)

Emerson's attorneys immediately asked for a new trial, but were overruled. They then appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which granted a hearing. It is posited that the justices were waiting for an opportunity to make a pro-slavery judicial pronouncement and Scott v. Emerson provided that chance. On February 12, 1850, an agreement was reached between all parties that only the case of Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson would be advanced; the outcome of that decision would apply to Harriet Scott's case, too. The case was docketed for the March 1850 term in St. Louis. The justices deciding the case were William Napton, who had been on the bench during Emerson's 1848 appeal, James H. Birch, and John F. Ryland.

At the Supreme Court level, Emerson's attorneys continued to maintain that military law was different from civil law when slave property was involved. They claimed this despite the Court's ruling to the contrary in Rachel v. Walker. Hugh Garland's brief, filed in March 1850, had two points: 1) consent of the master and 2) military jurisdiction. He claimed that because Emerson was ordered to the military posts, there was no implied consent on his part that he willingly took his slaves into free areas; therefore, residence in those areas did not work Dred Scott's freedom. The Court had determined in Nat v. Ruddle (1834) that freedom existed only if the slave's residence in free areas is with the master's consent. Garland followed up this argument with his claim that, to a certain extent, military jurisdiction annulled the slavery prohibitions of the Northwest Ordinance and the Missouri Compromise. He did not deny the constitutionality of those provisions; he simply stated they did not apply in this instance.

David Hall prepared the brief for Dred Scott. He used the same arguments that he had promoted in the lower court: residence in a free state/territory worked the freedom of a slave and this was a solid judicial standard in Missouri. He claimed Rachel v. Walker denied the difference between military and civil law, and pointed out that when Dr. Emerson left Fort Snelling for Fort Jesup, he voluntarily left Dred Scott in a free territory, thereby working his freedom.

Because of an overloaded docket, the case was not taken up in the March 1850 term, but postponed until the October term. The decision of the justices to remand Dred Scott to slavery, though, had already been made. According to historian Walter Ehrlich, "For the first time, politics was injected into the case, not by the parties, but by the judges of the Missouri Supreme Court in their intended decision" (Ehrlich 58). He states that the justices made a decision, in the midst of growing sectional tension over the expansion of slavery, to overturn all previous opinions that recognized the validity of slavery prohibitions. Napton and Birch were strongly pro-slavery. While his views were less resolute, Ryland could not be described as anti-slavery. Although the three reached a unanimous decision, their opinion was never written. Napton was to have formulated the written opinion, but postponed his writing while waiting for a particular legal tome to arrive in Jefferson City. Before the book arrived, though, the first opportunity for Missouri voters to elect their judicial officials arose in August 1851. Nine candidates ran in the contested election for the three state Supreme Court seats; according to newspaper articles, the Dred Scott case as such was not a campaign topic. Napton and Birch were both voted off the bench in the August 1851 elections.

"Times now are not as they were,
when the former decisions on this subject were made."
(Missouri Supreme Court Opinion, filed 22 March 1852)

The case, then, came before a new Court comprised of two new justices, Hamilton Gamble, William Scott, and the one remaining justice, John Ryland. Hamilton Gamble, born in 1798 in Virginia, was a St. Louis attorney and Whig; he began legal practice at the age of eighteen and was appointed Missouri's Secretary of State in 1824. His legal technique was clear, brief, and logical. William Scott was a pro-slavery Democrat who had been on the bench during Irene Emerson's appeal in 1848. The new Court met in St. Louis for the October 1851 term, where they examined the Dred Scott case. The election of the two new judges, though, did little to change the political motivation, already in play, for a pro-slavery decision.

In anticipation of the hearing, Alexander Field resubmitted the 1850 briefs to the court. Emerson's attorney, Lyman Norris, not aware of Field's action, was in the process of preparing a new brief for the Court's examination. He obtained permission to file it late. His brief is of particular importance, says Ehrlich, because it marked "a significant change in the legal arguments" (Ehrlich 61). Although the justices questioned the validity of the slavery prohibitions outlined in the Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Emerson's attorneys had never made validity of the prohibitions an argument in previous court appearances. In his new brief, Norris did not say the prohibitions were unconstitutional, but he questioned them as legal principles in his challenge of "once free, always free." His "sober second thoughts" on the matter challenged for the first time congressional prohibition of slavery in the territories. Dred Scott's suit for freedom was no longer simply that-the questioning of congressional authority now turned the case into a lightning rod for the slavery controversy.

The Court adjourned on December 24, 1851, and reconvened on March 15, 1852. On March 22, 1852, they rendered their 2-1 decision reversing the lower court decision. Justice William Scott wrote the opinion, with Ryland concurring. Scott did not deny that freedom suits had been presented to the Court previously. He claimed, though, that the decisions in those cases were made on the basis of the constitutions and laws of other states and/or territories without regard to the policies in Missouri. While recognizing that interstate comity could be a positive thing, he did not feel Missouri should have to recognize laws that were in opposition to its own; there should be a limit to the acknowledgment of comity. Scott also did not deny that the Missouri Compromise slavery prohibition was valid; he simply felt it was only valid where it applied, which was not within the boundaries of the state of Missouri. He acknowledged the right of slaves to obtain their freedom when taken to free states and/or territories; he advised, though, that slavery status reattached upon return to a slave state. The racist rhetoric that had surfaced in Norris' brief was also apparent in Scott's opinion when, in his conclusion, he stated that slavery was the will of God and that "Times now are not as they were, when the former decisions on this subject were made." With this statement, Scott all but admitted that racial and sectional prejudices influenced the decision.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Hamilton Gamble also addressed the issue of comity. He asserted, though, that the differences in achieving emancipation had always been honored among courts of different states and that taking a slave where the institution was expressly prohibited was a tacit act of emancipation. He cited cases from Missouri, Louisiana, Virginia, Mississippi, and Kentucky in his justification of the emancipation force of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. In concluding, he acknowledged the changing times and the fact that the slavery issue was becoming explosive in American politics and wrote, "Times may have changed, public feeling may have changed, but principles have not and do not change, and in my judgment there can be no safe basis for judicial decisions, but in those principles which are immutable." Nevertheless, Dred Scott was remanded to slavery.

On March 23, the day after the Missouri Supreme Court handed down its opinion, Irene Emerson Chaffee's attorneys appeared in the St. Louis Circuit Court, filing an order for the bonds signed by the Blow family covering the court costs. The attorneys also requested a return of the slaves and the payment of the slaves' wages of four years (at 6% interest). Judge Alexander Hamilton denied the order; no explanation for his ruling was made in the record books.

"This day come again the parties by their attorneys."
(Official Court Record, 15 May 1854)

image of Roswell Field
Roswell Field
Credit: Missouri Historical Society

Not satisfied with the Court's decision, on November 2, 1853, Dred Scott's friends helped him institute a suit in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Missouri. The Blow family, though, had made a decision that it could no longer financially support the Scott family's pursuit of freedom, especially since the prevailing attitudes appeared to be hopelessly against such a thing. A new attorney represented Scott since David Hall had died in the spring of 1851, before the Missouri Supreme Court decision, and after the decision, Alexander Field moved to Louisiana. Charles Edmund LaBeaume, who had been hiring the Scotts since 1851, consulted Roswell M. Field (no relation to Alexander Field) about the case. Field was friends with Alexander Hamilton and Hamilton Gamble, both of whom were sympathetic to the Scotts' cause. Field agreed to work on the case, free of charge, and suggested a suit in the federal courts under the diverse-citizenship clause, which governed lawsuits between parties who were residents of different states.

At this juncture in the case, Irene Emerson's brother, John Sanford, claimed ownership of the Scott family. This claim, like many Dred Scott ownership mysteries, has never been solved. There are no papers transferring ownership to Sanford from Chaffee. The Scott family had always been a sort of communal property to the Sanford family, so perhaps John Sanford, as an executor of his brother-in-law's estate, felt he was responsible for the slaves and, in a sense, their owner. Sanford was a West Point graduate and wealthy businessman. Although he had previously resided in St. Louis, by 1853, he was living in New York City. He maintained family ties in St. Louis because of his 1832 marriage to Emilie Chouteau, daughter of Pierre Chouteau, one of St. Louis' largest slave-holding families. Though she died in 1836, Sanford was already an active partner in most of the Chouteau family's business interests. After his wife's death, Sanford moved to New York as the eastern representative of the American Fur Company, acquired from John Jacob Astor. This tie to Chouteau explains in part Sanford's desire to continue fighting against Dred Scott's pursuit of freedom. The Chouteau family were unyielding in their defense of the institution of slavery and had been involved in numerous freedom suits. It is probable the family, especially Pierre Chouteau, encouraged Sanford to continue defending his property rights (or at least those of his sister).

Field's ultimate purpose in continuing Dred Scott's cause was to obtain from the United States Supreme Court a final judicial settlement of one question: Did residence in a free state or territory permanently free a slave? At issue was the Missouri Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott's case that Missouri law could remand to servitude a person who had been emancipated based on residence in a free state and/or territory. The search for the answer to this question brought other questions to the fore, such as, did a black person have the right to be a citizen of the United States and thus bring suit at all? These legal aspects of slavery interested Field, probably more than the moral and ethical issues. Field claimed that being a Negro of African descent did not bar anyone from citizenship or the right to sue. This was a subject that Chief Justice Taney would address in his 1857 opinion.

The November 1853 suit was similar in most respects to Dred Scott's original plea of trespass against Irene Emerson in 1846. This time, though, the suit mentioned his daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, and claimed damages of $9000. In April 1854, Sanford's attorney, Hugh Garland filed a plea in abatement, which challenged the court's jurisdiction claiming that Dred Scott was not a citizen because he was a "negro of African descent." Field filed a demurrer stating that this fact did not bar Scott from citizenship or the right to sue. Judge Robert W. Wells upheld Field's demurrer. Because the court claimed jurisdiction, Sanford pled not guilty to Dred Scott's charges.

Field and Garland prepared an "Agreed-Upon Statement of Facts" in 1854, which was essentially a biographical sketch of Dred Scott's life from the time he was purchased by John Emerson through the 1852 Missouri Supreme Court decision. Historian Kenneth Kaufman speculates that this joint statement "probably signaled the point at which Dred Scott's freedom no longer depended on proving residence on free soil, but rather on proving that freedom, once gained on free soil, could be retained upon return to slave territory" (Kaufman 187-188). No other witnesses or testimony were offered after the statement was read to the jury on May 15, 1854. The United States Circuit Court found in favor of Sanford, leaving Dred Scott and his family in slavery. Field appealed to the United States Supreme Court at the December 1854 term. Interestingly enough, Judge Alexander Hamilton had already made a notation regarding Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson in the record books of the St. Louis Circuit Court. It read: "Continued by consent, waiting decision of U.S. Supreme Court." Hamilton made this note on January 25, 1854, many months before the federal court handed down its decision averse to Dred Scott. This notation suggests that those involved knew the case was headed to the United States Supreme Court, regardless of the outcome at the U.S. circuit court level (Kaufman 189).

"But no doubt he will find at the bar of the Supreme Court
some able and generous advocate."
(St. Louis Daily Morning Herald, 18 May 1854)

The United States Supreme Court did not hear the case until February 1856. Roswell Field arranged for Montgomery Blair, a St. Louis attorney living in Washington D.C., to argue Dred Scott's case before the Supreme Court. Because the case was becoming more high profile in the bitter conflict over slavery, Field needed a high-profile lawyer to argue it before the Court.

The Blair family was politically influential in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. Though part of the Southern aristocracy, they opposed slavery expansion. The family enjoyed a close friendship with Missouri's long-time United States Senator Thomas Hart Benton and strongly identified with the pro-Benton faction in Missouri. Montgomery Blair was outspoken in his antislavery views and, with his brother Frank, had been a leader in Missouri's Free Soil Movement. After consulting with his father, Francis Preston Blair, and securing a promise to underwrite the court costs from Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery "National Era," Blair agreed to represent Dred Scott.

John Sanford also had new representation in the United States Supreme Court. Hugh Garland died in October 1854; Lyman Norris had already left Missouri. Sanford acquired Reverdy Johnson, a nationally-known constitutional lawyer from Maryland, and Henry S. Geyer, St. Louis attorney and U.S. Senator for Missouri. Geyer, who defeated long-term Senator Thomas Hart Benton in 1850, represented a number of pro-slavery clients in Missouri, including Pierre Chouteau. Both Johnson and Geyer argued the case at no charge to Sanford.

In his brief filed February 7, 1856, Montgomery Blair argued that freedom based on residence in a free state or territory was permanent and slavery did not reattach upon return to a slave state. This had always been the case in Missouri until the state Supreme Court decided to inject current political views into its 1852 majority opinion. He also claimed that a Negro of African descent could be a citizen of the United States. Roswell Field and Blair hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold Missouri's long-standing legal precedent and laws regarding slave freedom and citizenship.

Oral arguments began on February 11, 1856, with Blair reiterating the points made in his brief. Geyer and Johnson challenged the authority of Congress to make the 1820 Missouri Compromise; they thus denied Dred Scott's right to freedom. They did not question whether Dred Scott could lose freedom gained by living in a free territory. They questioned whether he was ever free in the first place, since their legal interpretation did not recognize the binding force of either the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 or the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

In May 1856, the justices called for the case to be reargued in December. At that time, George Ticknor Curtis, a Boston attorney, Whig, and brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis, assisted Blair in arguing the constitutional questions of the case. A final decision was delivered on March 6, 1857. Eight of the nine justices wrote separate opinions. Seven justices, primarily pro-Southern, followed individual lines of reasoning that led to a shared opinion that, by law, Dred Scott was still a slave. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote what is considered to be the majority opinion.

".they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
(Opinion of the United States Supreme Court, 6 March 1857)

image of Roger B. Taney
Roger B. Taney
Credit: Missouri Historical Society

Taney's "Opinion of the Court" stated that Negroes were not citizens of the United States and had no right to bring suit in a federal court. In addition, Dred Scott had not become a free man as a result of his residence at Fort Snelling because the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional; Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the federal territories. Furthermore, Dred Scott did not become free based on his residence at Fort Armstrong (Rock Island), because his status, upon return to Missouri, depended upon Missouri law as determined in Scott v. Emerson. Because Dred Scott was not free under either the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 or the 1820 Missouri Compromise, he was still a slave, not a citizen with the right to bring suit in the federal court system. According to Taney's opinion, African Americans were "beings of an inferior order. so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." (Kaufman 221). Taney returned the case to the circuit court with instructions to dismiss it for want of jurisdiction.

"Taylor Blow.acknowledges the execution by him
of a Deed of Emancipation to his slaves."
(Court Record, 26 May 1857)

In spite of the United States Supreme Court's decision that Dred Scott was a slave, he did finally receive his freedom. Irene Emerson's abolitionist second husband, Dr. Calvin Chaffee, now a Massachusetts congressman, found out his wife owned arguably the most famous slave in America in February 1857, just shortly before the Court's decision. Unable to intervene in the case at that point, Chaffee suffered "disparaging commentary" in newspapers nationwide and on the floor of Congress because of the seeming hypocrisy of his ardent abolitionist stance while being a slave owner. Chaffee immediately transferred ownership of the Scott family to Taylor Blow in St. Louis; Missouri law only allowed a citizen of the state to emancipate a slave there. Irene Emerson Chaffee agreed to this ownership transfer on the condition that she receive the wages the Scott family earned over the last seven years. The wages amounted to about $750. There is speculation that, in 1857, Dred and Harriet Scott were worth about $350 each on the slave market. Had Irene Emerson Chaffee sold them, her return may have been less than the total of their wages earned (Kaufman 226).

image of Barnum's Hotel
Barnum's Hotel
Credit: Missouri Historical Society

On May 26, 1857, Dred and Harriet Scott appeared in the St. Louis Circuit Court and were formally freed; Judge Alexander Hamilton approved the papers. Dred Scott took a job as a porter at Barnum's Hotel at Second and Walnut streets in St. Louis; he became a sort of celebrity there. The family lived off Carr Street in the city, where Harriet took in laundry, which Scott delivered when he was not working at the hotel. Dred Scott did not live to enjoy his free status very long; on September 17, 1858, he died of tuberculosis. Their daughter, Lizzie Scott, married Wilson Madison of St. Louis, and had two sons, Harry and John Alexander. Harriet Scott died on June 17, 1876, at the home of Lizzie and Wilson Madison. She was buried June 20, 1876, in Section C of Greenwood Cemetery in St. Louis County.

"Sectionalism dead? It was the most intense, bitter,
overshadowing sectionalism that forced
this decree from the Supreme Court."
(New York Tribune, 21 March 1857)

Dred Scott tried to win his freedom at a time when white Americans were struggling to determine the political status of slavery, as well as their attitudes toward black people, slave or free. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The United States Supreme Court's pro-slavery decision did not surprise the nation. In fact, it outraged much of the population when it was confirmed. When Emerson's attorneys questioned the constitutionality of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, they placed Dred Scott's case directly in the center of sectional political maelstrom. Extending slavery into the territories was a contentious issue with, as the national media reported, often-violent reactions. The hostility and bloodshed of the Missouri-Kansas border troubles only emphasized the sectional chasm between northern and southern states over the slavery issue.

The United States Supreme Court was under increasing pressure to offer a judicial resolution to the slavery issue. In denying Dred Scott his freedom, the Court made one of its most controversial decisions ever. Waves of indignation swept the North. Editorial comments from northern newspapers immediately denounced the decision as wicked, detestable, and cowardly. Individual clergymen sermonized on the evils of a decision that dismissed an entire race as inferior. The furor did not begin or end, though, with the decision's racism. Northerners who were not abolitionists, or even necessarily anti-slavery, protested the pro-Southern bias of the decision. It allowed, virtually unchecked, the spread of slavery into territories and states, threatening the economic aspirations of free white laborers.

Taney intended the Court's decision to end the slavery controversy for all time. Instead, the intense and immediate public reaction accelerated a chain of events that made fighting a civil war unavoidable.

For further reading:

  • Ehrlich, Walter. They Have No Rights: Dred Scott's Struggle for Freedom. Westport [CT]: Greenwood Press, 1979.

  • Fehrenbacher, Don E. Slavery, Law, & Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

  • Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

  • Kaufman, Kenneth C. Dred Scott's Advocate: A Biography of Roswell M. Field. Columbia [MO]: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

  • Konig, David Thomas. The Long Road to Dred Scott:  Personhood and the Rule of Law in the Trial Court Records of St. Louis Slave Freedom Suits. UMKC Law Review 75,1 (Fall 2006).