Dred Scott Case

Original from Frank Leslie's Magazine; Digital Copy Courtesy of House Divided Project

In Lincoln’s Constitution (Chicago, 2003), Daniel Farber identifies the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) as the turning point in Lincoln’s constitutional attitudes.  “Before Dred Scott,” Farber writes, “Lincoln does not seem to have questioned the role of the courts in maintaining the constitutional order” (177).

Farber focuses on Lincoln’s decisions as a wartime president, but the most important new developments in the scholarly understanding of the Dred Scott Case have been revelations about the people actually involved in the case.  Most scholars knew, for example, that both Dred Scott and his wife Harriet Robinson Scott filed freedom suits on April 6, 1846, but it has only been in recent years, and especially because of the work of University of Iowa law professor Lea VanderVelde, that historians have developed a deeper understanding of the Scott family and the forces that helped propel them into the most notorious Supreme Court case in American history.

VanderVelde’s fascinating biography, Mrs. Dred Scott:  A Life on Slavery’s Frontier (Oxford, 2009) came out only last year, although an article upon which the book was based (also titled, “Mrs. Dred Scott’) did appear in the Yale Law Journal in January 1997 (now available through Lexis-Nexis).  There is no comparable biography of Dred Scott, but Walter Ehrlich’s book, They Have No Rights: Dred Scott’s Struggle for Freedom (Greenwood, 1979) is widely cited as the best study of the case’s origins in Missouri and the most detailed account of the plaintiff’s personal story (available in Dickinson Library).  Yet the principal source on the federal case remains Don E. Fehrenbacher’s The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (Oxford, 1978), a landmark study which won the Pulitzer Prize, but is not currently available at the Dickinson Library (nor available in any significant way at Google Books).

Dred and Harriet Scott field for freedom in 1846 in St. Louis Circuit Court claiming that they had been held as slaves in the free territory around Fort Snelling (present-day Minnesota) by their master, an Army surgeon named John Emerson, during the late 1830s and early 1840s.  In 1846, they sued Irene Emerson, the surgeon’s widow, invoking what was known as the “once free, always free doctrine” that previous slaves had used in similar cases to win freedom.  In fact, they won their case on this basis before losing on appeal in the Missouri Supreme Court (Scott v. Emerson) in 1852.  By then, lawyers had also agreed to combine the two suits under Dred Scott’s name, since under another doctrine of the day known as coverture, wives found their legal rights subsumed under their husbands.  In other words, if Harriet Scott had won her freedom from slavery, she would still find her independence compromised as a wife.  Lawyers for Dred Scott continued the case after the 1852 state defeat (a surprising verdict that reversed years of precedents in their favor) by pursuing a new case in federal court in 1854, now suing under the diversity of citizenship clause since Irene Emerson’s brother, John F.A. Sanford, a New York resident, had been acting as their master (by supervising their hiring out).  After three years, a divided Supreme Court (7-2) finally ruled against Dred Scott, not only denying him freedom, but also in the process ruling that blacks could not hold federal citizenship, that states did not have to honor each others’ rules regarding slavery, and finally, that Missouri Compromise of 1820 had been unconstitutional because Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories.  This complicated story (combined with a clerk’s error) explains how the story of a couple fighting for freedom in Missouri came to be known in federal courts at Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (Dickinson College, Class of 1795) dominated the Supreme Court which ruled against Scott.  Most scholars still seem to regard Carl B. Swisher’s 1935 multi-volume biography of the controversial Chief as the standard account of his life, though there has also been a recent and generally well-received book-length comparison of Taney and Lincoln by James F. Simon.  There is also a new revisionist article in the Journal of American History by Timothy S. Huebner (Rhodes College) that carefully explains Taney’s complicated anti-slavery background.

Other members of the Taney court who joined the Chief Justice in the 7-2 majority ruling include John A. Campbell, John Catron, Peter V. Daniel, Robert Cooper Grier (Dickinson College, Class of 1814), Samuel Nelson, and James M. Wayne.  None of them, however, have been the subject of recent biographical work.  Nor have the two dissenters, Benjamin R. Curtis and John McLean attracted much modern attention.

There is, however, a major new study of Hamilton Gamble, who was the lone Missouri Supreme Court justice who dissented from the 1852 decision in Emerson v. Scott. See Dennis K. Boman, Lincoln’s Resolute Unionist (2006).

There are also several helpful web-based resources about Dred Scott.  One of the most comprehensive reference guides comes from Washington University in St. Louis which has posted a Revised Dred Scott Case Collection that includes a detailed chronology and more than 400 pages of original documents.  The House Divided Project at Dickinson College has also created a slideshow with the Gilder Lehrman Institute that features page images of the original Scott freedom suits.

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