The Dred Scott Decision
There have been several cases in the history of the Supreme Court that have had a powerful impact on both the highest court of the land and the history of the United States. The Dred Scott decision can definitely be included in this category of monumental cases that changed the course of American history. Until this decision the Supreme Court had a flawless reputation. Its prestige and credibility were beyond reproach. This high regard for the Supreme Court made people on both sides of the slavery issue turn to it in the hope that what could not be resolved in the political world could be solved in the legal world by the highest court of the land. But this was really expecting too much of judicial power. The major error associated with this case was the misguided belief that a flaming political problem,slavery, could become manageable by calling it a legal problem and handing it over to the courts to resolve.In the Dred Scott case the decision was based on “expediency not principle.” The big problem was trying to use judicial power to settle a major political problem. Although the Dred Scott decision may have been the result of a trial , in reality it was a case of the court battling with the complex issue of slavery, especially in the territories, in the mid l800’s.In order to tell the story of a slave you have to tell the story of his master.The slave does not have an identity or history of his own. In Virginia, Peter Blow and his family had many slaves. Among these slaves was a young man named Sam, or as we know him today, Dred Scott.
Peter Blow decided to move his estate to Alabama and then to the thriving port city of St. Louis. During these years ,Dred married and had a child.
After the death of the Blows, Dred was sold to Dr. Emerson, an army surgeon. He and Scott traveled through Illinois and Minnesota. When Dr. Emerson died , Dred Scott was sent back to St. Louis to Mrs. Emerson. This was when Scott argued that under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, the fact that he and Dr. Emerson lived in Illinois and Minnesota made him a free man. The Missouri Compromise did not allow slavery in whatever territory that remained from the Louisiana Purchase north of a specific line, 36o 30′ of north latitude.
At this time the issue of slavery was a major concern. The Mexican War provided the United States with a lot of new territory, and the question of the future of slavery in the territories was on everyones mind. The people of the North who were against slavery wanted Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories.
John C. Calhoun, the spokesman for the South, said that Congress did not have the right to prohibit slavery in the territories. The Southern attempt to extend the line of the Missouri Compromise failed, so their only hope was Calhoun’s constitutional criticism of Congress’ attempt to prohibit slavery in the territories.This was why they plunged themselves completely behind Calhoun’s ideas. Calhoun argued that the territories were “the common property of the states of this Union. They are called the’ territories of the United States,’ and what are the ‘ United States’ but the States united? Sir, these territories are the property of the States united; held jointly for their common use.” This statement beautifully illustrates how extreme the Southern view of state sovereignty was. It was the Southern belief that the states should have the right to declare slavery in their states and it is beyond congressional power to prohibit slavery.
Southerners believed that their very existence depended on an equal amount of slave and free states. They realized that if Congress prohibited slavery in the territories there would be no more equality of slave states and free states.
The Northern view was based upon the Wilmot Proviso which expressed the view that Congress had not only the right but also the responsibility to prohibit slavery. The Northern view was also based upon the very constitution itself which said that Congress has the power to “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory… belonging to the United States.”
Calhoun presented his ideas to Congress, telling them that the territories belong to the states and since Congress is merely the agent of the states, it has no right to prohibit slavery. It all came down to whether or not you believe that state’s rights are more important than federal rights or vice versa. Many debates, including the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, focused on this hot issue.
With much debate, Congress was hopelessly deadlocked. The Senate would not approve any provision or law which denied the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories. The House did not approve any package which included the right of Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories. The situation was completely inflexible . It appeared as though nothing would change the situation in Congress.It was decided by the South and agreed upon by the North that there was but one solution to the mess that the Union had gotten itself into: getting the judiciary involved.
At that time the Supreme Court seemed to be incapable of doing anything wrong. With the supreme leadership ability of John Marshall and now Roger Taney, all problems seemed to be solved, and solved correctly. Southerners saw that nothing was happening to change the fact that Congress could prohibit slavery in the territories. After a while everyone seemed to feel that the judicial system was their only hope for a solution. Even the loud Senator from Illinois, by the name of Abraham Lincoln said:”The Supreme Court of the United States is the tribunal to decide such questions and we will submit to its decision.”
So there it is . It is all up to the courts, through the trials of a few cases,to decide upon the complex and heavily debated issue of slavery. This is why the case of Dred Scott played such an important role in American history.
In the first trial in l846, the St. Louis Circuit Court denied Dred’s plea for freedom. However, his lawyer set up a retrial in 1850.
Scott claimed freedom because of his stay in Minnesota and Illinois.After Dr. Emerson died, Scott became the property of Mrs. Emerson. When she remarried she gave Dred to her brother, Sanford , who regarded Dred as his property. Sanford said that even though Dred Scott had been in territories that prohibited slavery, his voluntary return to St. Louis, a slave bearing state, made him a slave once again. In the retrial Scott prevailed, but two years later, in l852, Scott lost in the Missouri Supreme Court. At this point the case began to attract a lot of public attention.
The case became a Federal case when Scott claimed that he was a citizen of Missouri and that Sanford, a citizen of New York, had assaulted him. Sanford
replied with a plea of abatement on the grounds that Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri because his ancestors came to the United States as slaves. Since Dred is not a citizen, he cannot file a claim in a federal court. The plea of abatement was denied because the judge claimed that Scott was a citizen. After the trial the judge secretly informed the jury to vote against Scott; this is what the jury did.
Dred Scott’s lawyers filed a Writ of Error to the United States Supreme Court. With a very heavy docket, the Supreme Court planned to hear the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case two years later, in the year of l856. Legal experts joined both sides of the case as the attention of the entire country became focused on this trial. The fact that Sanford had entered a plea of abatement claiming that blacks were not citizens, gave the entire case an added dimension of importance. Not only was it involved with the vital question of Congress’ right to prohibit slavery in the territories, it called into question the very right of Negroes to be citizens . What is the use of Congress prohibiting slavery in the territories if those freed from slavery could not become citizens? The whole country realized that this was the case they had all been waiting for. This was the case that would make the ultimate decision.
It would be very hard for Dred Scott to win this case. The court was Southern and pro slavery. There were nine justices. Taney, the Chief Justice, and four others were from the South. Two of the Northern judges were for state rights and one was pro slavery. Only one judge was against slavery.
After hearing the case, the judges wanted to rule in favor of Sanford. This is an example of using the law to get the results that you want. The judges wanted to use the law to promote the view of the United States that they considered most desirable. They could not decide on what legal principle their decision should be based. Some judges wanted to override Scott’s status as a citizen. Justice Nelson said that since this case was so controversial, and the election of l856 was so controversial, they should wait until after the election to hear new arguments. This request was granted.
More arguments were heard and the judges decided upon a verdict. The decision, which Justice Taney presented ,had three main points: Negroes, even those who were not slaves, could not be citizens of the United States, according to the meaning of the Constitution. Scott’s claim that he had become a free man because he lived in a territory from which slavery had been prohibited as a result of the Missouri Compromise, was not valid. This was because the Missouri Compromise which excluded slavery went beyond the constitutional power of Congress. Finally, Scott was not free because he had lived in Illinois. Once he returned to Missouri he was obligated to obey the laws of Missouri and was bound by the position he held in that state.
In l86l-1862, two very important things happened : Abraham Lincoln was elected president and Congress prohibited slavery in the territories without judicial restraint. These two things helped the North gain power. People were very upset with the Dred Scott ruling, even after his death. Other cases received similar verdicts and were not judged by the merits of the individual cases, but by the issue of slavery. People were not getting fair trials even though they were insured fair trials by the Constitution of the United States of America.
Calhoun continued to fight and remained a defender of slavery. He based his position on the right of states to “regulate their own domestic institutions.”
There was still much debate and the issue was nowhere close to being solved. The hope of having it solved by the Supreme Court proved to be an illusion. The mood of the country was angry. Compromise was out of the question.
The Dred Scott case made the common folk aware of slavery and its horrors. It added much more depth to the newly formed Free Soil and Republican Parties. But it was also used as a weapon for the Democrats. Every time the issue of judiciary involvement came up, they just pointed to the Dred Scott case. Republicans said it was just proof of Southern unfairness, and a good reason to fight against them.
The South had extremists who stuck to their belief in their absolute sovereignty. This further isolated and separated the South from the rest of the country.
The Dred Scott case bears directly on the Civil War. It not only strengthened the Republican Party but it also angered them to the point that they were ready to fight in a war. There was a war and the North prevailed. This war marked the end of slavery, but was one of the most traumatic events in the history of the United States.
The Dred Scott decision was a major factor in dividing the nation beyond repair. It was the moving force for the Civil War that followed it. The Supreme Court’s consideration of the case represented the last chance for a peaceful and legal solution to the issue of slavery. All prior political solutions proposed by Congress proved futile. Having exhausted both political and legal means for a solution, the fanatics took over and the bloodshed of war became inevitable.