Elsewhere on this web site you will find virtual tours that take you to places where the Civil War was fought — such as Shiloh, Fort Pillow, New Johnsonville and others.
Now we’re going to take a look at one of the causes of the Civil War. To to do, so we’re heading northwest of Tennessee to St. Louis, Missouri.
This is the best place to learn about the trial of Dred Scott and its outcome.
Dred Scott was born in Virginia around 1799. (Like many slaves, he didn’t know his date of birth). Early in life he was the property of a man named Peter Blow. He became friends with Peter Blow’s children (which ended up becoming very important to Dred Scott later in life).
The Blow family moved twice — first to a cotton farm near Huntsville, Alabama, and later to St. Louis. At that point, Blow sold the slave Dred Scott to an army doctor named John Emerson.
John Emerson’s army career took him all over the place, and Dred Scott followed him to army bases in both slave states and free territory. Eventually, Emerson married and returned to St. Louis, by which time both he and his slave Dred Scott were married men (and Dr. Emerson owned both Dred Scott and Dred’s wife Harriet). While in St. Louis, Dr. Emerson and his wife “leased” Dred and Harriet Scott out to other people. So even though they were slaves, Dred and Harriet Scott had their own residence and had various jobs in St. Louis.
Dr. Emerson died in 1843, at which time the Scotts became the property of his widow Irene Emerson. And in 1846, Dred Scott filed a lawsuit against Irene Emerson in the courthouse in St. Louis, claiming he was a free man by virtue of the fact that Dr. Emerson had, for extended periods of time, taken him to parts of the country where slavery was outlawed (his wife Harriet filed a similar lawsuit, and eventually those suits merged).
Here is an interesting point about the trial that many people miss: When Dred Scott originally filed this lawsuit asking for his freedom, it was not an unusual thing to do. In fact, about 300 slaves in Missouri alone had sued the courts asking for their freedom in the years leading up to Scott’s trial. About half of them had been granted their freedom because they had, much like Scott, been taken from a slave state to free territory and back again.
When a lawyer filed a lawsuit on behalf of Scott, it seemed like a pretty routine case, and it looked as if Scott would win. In fact, Dred Scott and his attorneys did just that. In 1850 the judge ruled that Scott was free and that Mrs. Emerson even owed him the money she had received from “leasing him out” since he had been brought back to St. Louis.
Dred Scott would have gone free then, like many slaves who had filed similiar lawsuits before him, had it not been for one important thing: Irene Emerson appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Two years later, in 1852, the Missouri high court struck down the lower court ruling — deciding, in effect, that Scott was still a slave and that it didn’t matter that he had been taken into free territory.
Why this turnaround? The answer appears to be based on politics. A lot of things changed in 1851 and 1852, and judges looked less favorably on the idea of freeing slaves by the time Dred Scott’s appeal came up.
Again — the case could have ended there. But another group of attorneys came forward and decided to continue fighting on behalf of Dred Scott. About that time, for reasons no one has ever fully understood, Irene Emerson transferred her ownership in the slave Dred Scott to her brother — a New York resident named John Sanford. Since the case now involved people from two different states, it shifted from Missouri state court to U.S. federal court. So by the time the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court it was known as Scott v. Sandford (the clerk misspelled Sanford’s name).
All of this took years. In 1856 the Supreme Court heard the case and rendered its decision in March 1857, only days after James Buchanan became president. The court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, ruled that Dred Scott was still a slave — and it went much further than that. Taney’s majority opinion also stated that any person descended from black Africans, whether slave or free, could not be a citizen of the United States. It also ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional.
As history books explain, this verdict affected a lot more people than Dred Scott. It effectively meant that the series of compromises that had been worked out over the previous generation regarding the issue of slavery were no more. It meant, or at least it seemed to mean, that southern slaveholders could take their slaves wherever they wanted; it meant that they could take legal action to have runaway slaves from years past returned to them. Most importantly, it seemed to mean that the entire American west was now wide open to slavery.
However, people across America (and especially in the North) were opposed to the verdict in the Dred Scott case. Within months of its being handed down, it became obvious that it would be a key factor in the 1860 presidential election — the results of which led to a series of events that led to war.
After the war began, a lot of people blamed it on Supreme Court Justice Taney. When Taney died in 1864, one prominent New York attorney, George Templeton Strong, wrote that “the Hon. Old Roger B. Taney has earned the gratitude of his country by dying at last. Better late than never.”
In spite of the significance of this trial, we know very little about Dred Scott himself. We know that he was (like most slaves) unable to read. During his 11-year-long legal battle he continued to work in St. Louis, mainly as a hotel porter. Dred Scott and his wife Harriet (also a plantiff in the lawsuit) were, all along, simply trying to win their freedom, but by the late 1850s Dred Scott was aware of just how famous he had become and was proud of it.
In the late 1850s a reporter was introduced to Scott by a local gentleman and asked if he could have his picture made. It ended up being the only picture ever taken of a man who left very little personal record.
And now for the greatest irony of all: After losing their long legal battle to become free, Dred and his wife ended up free. As you remember: All those years earlier, Dred Scott had been the property of a man named Peter Blow. One of his childhood friends was Peter’s son Taylor Blow.
With the Dred Scott case finally concluded, Taylor Blow stepped forward and purchased Scott, his wife and his two daughters from John Sanford. He then took the legal steps to set them free.
Dred Scott continued to work as a hotel porter for the rest of life. But, unlike before, he got to keep all the money he made.
On September 17, 1858, Dred Scott died from tuberculosis. Today his remains are buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, where it is a local tradition to place Lincoln pennies on top of his gravestone.