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Slavery and the House Divided: Dred Scott Case


Dred Scott, a Southampton County resident, Virginia was born in 1799, as a property of Peter Blow. Peter Blow, who was his first master moved to St.Louis, Missouri in 1830 and two years later died. Dred Scott was sold to US Army officer, Dr John Emerson in order to settle claims against Blow’s estate. Emerson, his second master used to be reassigned duties during his tenure in military and had to move with his slaves into the free territories of Wisconsin and Illinois; which had abolished slavery. It was in Wisconsin territory where Scott married his wife Harriet and thus both Scot and his wife were under the custody of Emerson. Emerson returned back to St Louis in 1837 and for the most times thereafter left the Scotts under the custody of his wife, Irene. In December, 1843 Emerson his master died David et al (2001). It was in 1846 when Dred Scott attempted to get his freedom at a price that Irene Emerson refused and in April of that year he sued his freedom in the court basing on the fact that he stayed with his master Emerson in the territories of America where slavery was disbanded. Hence he claimed that he was legally free and that he should not be treated as a slave even though he had returned back to the slave state of Missouri. John Sanford, Irene’s brother was named to represent her in New York court because he resided there. This therefore made the case to be interstate issue and with this Scott went ahead to St. Louis Federal Courts with objective of appealing against the case. St Louis District Federal Court supported the state court’s decision and this forced Scott to go to the United Supreme Court to appeal against the case. It took years and several turns for the case; for the issues involved were so complicated David et al (2001).


Chief Justice Roger Taney was a very complex man believed to be a staunch supporter of slavery and his intention was to protect Southerners from Northern interference. Taney emancipated his own slaves and gave pensions to the slaves who were too old Ethan (2005). He defended a Methodist minister in 1819 over allegations of inciting slaves to be rebellious. However with time his attitude towards slavery changed and he spearheaded the campaign that opposition to slavery was northern aggression and thus he was highly supported by the southerners who wanted to maintain the status quo. Taney believed that slaves were a property of slaveholders and therefore the slaveholders could move with them into free states and those state laws of free state providing for the freedom of the slaves were unconstitutional as pertaining to the laws of the land of Missouri James (2002). Dred Scott case was argued twice and the last term argument brought about differences of opinion among the members of the court. They considered the questions to be controversial and therefore of great importance and thus the court was highly pressed.

The two issues that were so controversial and needed to be addressed were:

  1. If the Circuit Court of the US had the powers to hearing and determining the case between Scott, the plaintiff and Sanford, the defendant.
  2. And if it had the jurisdiction, is the judgment bound to give, erroneous or not.

The Supreme Court had the problem of defining and interpreting if the African descents whether free or slave could be granted the status of citizenship of United States. It was ruled that Scott was not a citizen of United States and was therefore not entitled to use the federal courts. He had no privileges and rights to use the constitution of United States to secure citizenship because he was considered to be subordinate and inferior being who was overpowered by the dominating race and whether freed or not belong to the subject of the their authority Ethan (2005). The slaves were considered to be individual properties and could be bought and sold at owner’s convenience. The slaves had no right and could not be granted private family life and basic human rights. The ruling made by Taney had an emphasis that slaves were a property and the Congress didn’t have the right to interfere with internal affairs of territories. The slave owners were safeguarded by the prevailing constitution of the land to own property; slaves. After Justice Taney ruling, Scott was returned as a property to Irene Emerson. In 1850, Emerson remarried Calvin Chaffee an abolitionist who was elected to Congress. However Chaffee was unaware that his wife owned the controversial slave, and came to know when it was a month before the Supreme Court made the decision. Disgusted by the turn of events he forced his wife to take back Scott to the Blow family; the original owners. Scott was finally freed in 1857 and worked as a porter in St Louis before he died in 1858 James (2002).

The ultimate ruling of the case by the Supreme Court pertaining to the Dred Scott case brought about the splitting of the southern and northern regions. The southern region had large tracts of farming land which required slaves to work on; they were therefore contented by the ruling. Slaves to them were considered to be properties and they can use them as they so wish but the northern region did not agree with the ruling and they concluded that, slavery was allowed as long as it was in the southern region. The northern observed the decision to be wicked for they believed slaves were human beings and they had rights to be treated equally like their fellow whites. The northern region was developing very fast because they had accepted to live and interact freely with the black people leaving the southern to maintain status quo. This difference in ideologies created rift between the two regions and fueled the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 David et al (2001).


The tribunal of the 1856 that was composed of nine justices with the sole objective of deciding the fate of Scott was partisan on the matters of slavery and thus was not able to make fair judgment. The seven Justices of the nine were appointed by the Presidents of the south who supported slavery and the five of the nine justices came from families holding slaves. However had the case been shifted to the Federal Court from the state Supreme Court there would have been no difference to the ruling of the state. This is because according to previous decision, authority was given to individual states to determine the status of its inhabitants. Scott attempted to bring the case to the federal court on the basis that he and the defendant, John Sanford who at that time was living in New York, were both citizens of different states David et al (2001).

The Congress regulation changes that began with Northwest land ordinances through the Kansas –Nebraska Act of 1854 made the assumptions that the individual states had the mandate to determine the fate of their institutions and that the Congress had no powers to control slavery regions. In the Nebraska Act the Congress was impelled to come up with alternative methods. It decided to cancel the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which empowered Missouri as a slave state and went further to divide the rest of Louisiana into slave and non-slave regions. The Congress allowed people living in Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves. The Kansas effect was bloody and the Supreme Court gave message to Congress that there was no retreat and this plunged the United States into civil war David et al (2001). The lack of proper control by the Congress can be blamed for the outbreak of the civil war; otherwise they could have contained the situation if it had well defined instituted laws that would govern the country uniformly.


David, D, Jean, B, Michael, H. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, Inc, 2001.

Ethan, R (Ed).The American Civil War. New York: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005.

James, M. Freedom Crossroads. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


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