Photo Essay - Dred Scott v. Sandford

Illustration of Dred Scott, published 27 June 1857. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Dred Scott, or Sam Blow as he was first named, was born into slavery in Virginia in 1795. Scott spent his first 35 years with his master, Peter Blow. When Blow died, Scott was sold to John Emerson, a U.S. Army surgeon who frequently traveled in the Western Territories. At this time, the West was in the process of being settled and laws regarding slavery varied from state to state and territory to territory. In 1834 Emerson moved with Scott as his personal valet to a military fort in Illinois, a state where slavery was outlawed. A few years later, Emerson and Scott relocated to Fort Snelling, part of the Wisconsin Territory, also a location where slavery was outlawed.

Map of Missouri Territory, c. 1814 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The United States saw a great expansion westward at the turn of the nineteenth century. When the Missouri Territory petitioned Congress for statehood in 1820, the question of whether slavery would be legal in the new states came to a head. In order to keep a balance between slave states and non-slave states, it was decided that Missouri would enter as a slave state while Maine would enter as a non-slave state. It was also decided that a border would be drawn across the country at the 36° 30' latitude line—all territories north of the boundary would enter as free states, all territories south would enter as slave states. New states would enter the country in pairs to preserve the precarious balance between locations allowing and outlawing slavery.

Illustration of Harriet Scott, published 27 June 1857 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

It was around 1836 at Fort Snelling—in a territory north of the 36° 30' border—that Dred Scott met and married Harriet, the slave of an army officer. Legalized marriage was rare between slaves but the Scotts' marriage was legal. They went on to have two daughters—Eliza and Lizzie. In 1838 Harriet and Dred returned to St. Louis with Emerson. Emerson died in 1843 and Harriet and Scott became the property of Emerson's wife Eliza Irene. Three years later Harriet (shown here) and Dred separately filed suits against Irene Emerson, suing for their freedom based on the premise that because they had lived in places where slavery was outlawed, they were no longer slaves. Harriet's case was dropped but Dred's case continued on through the system. They lost the initial trial, but in a retrial in 1850 the court ruled in their favor and they were freed.

Court House, St Louis, Missouri, 1870s Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Irene Emerson appealed the 1850 decision and Dred Scott's case was brought to the Missouri Supreme Court and argued in the court house shown here. In 1852, the Scotts lost both the retrial and their freedom. By this time Emerson's brother, John Sanford, was taking care of her affairs and he was now the owner of the Scott family. Interestingly, Sanford's name was misspelled in the Supreme Court case documents and went down in history as Sandford. Sanford was a New York resident. Because Scott and Sanford lived in different states, Scott was able to re-file the suit in 1853, this time in a federal court. The St. Louis federal court ruled that Scott was still a slave and, once again, Scott appealed the verdict. In 1856, Dred Scott v. Sandford came before the United States Supreme Court for the first time and in February 1857 the case was re-argued in front of the highest court in the country.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, c. 1860 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

On 6 March 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (above) delivered his opinion to a crowd of journalists. The court had ruled 7 to 2 against Dred Scott. The Dred Scott decision was highly contentious and had multiple ramifications. Foremost, at an individual level, it retracted the freedom that Scott had won in earlier cases. Secondly, it stated that black people could not be citizens of the United States. It did not matter if they were free or not—their African ancestry systematically barred them from both state and U.S. citizenship. Finally, the court decided that Congress did not have the power to decide if territories would outlaw slavery and thus deemed the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. A Supreme Court decision overturned a major federal law for the first time.

Abraham Lincoln, c.1865 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Dred Scott decision immediately deepened the divide between the North and South, abolitionists and pro-slavery factions, and Republicans and Democrats. When the decision came down, Abraham Lincoln was a largely unknown lawyer who had served one term in Congress ten years earlier but he became one the most articulate critics of the decision. The Dred Scott case made both Scott and Lincoln national figures. Lincoln's 1860 presidential campaign was largely based on prohibiting slavery from the territories—the exact issue that the Scott case engaged.

The Political Quadrille, Music by Dred Scott, 1860. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In this political cartoon Dred Scott is depicted as a central figure in the 1860 presidential contest. Lincoln is shown in the upper right hand corner dancing with an African American woman, a satirical nod to Lincoln's abolitionist platform. When this cartoon was published both Dred Scott and John Sanford were already deceased. Dred Scott v. Sandford had long ceased to be about two individuals. Rather, it was an integral part of the mounting tension around the slavery debate that would lead directly to the Civil War.

Front page of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, published 27 June 1857. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Scotts' fight for emancipation lasted from 1846 until 1857—eleven long years. Ultimately the Scotts were freed. Mrs. Emerson remarried into a family that opposed slavery. Shortly after the Supreme Court handed down its decision her new husband sold the Scott family to Taylor Blow, the son of Dred Scott's original owner, who immediately freed them. Dred Scott died a year later. Slavery was not outlawed in the United States until 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment states, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside." This amendment was passed in 1868 to directly supersede the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision.