History of Dred Scott
St. Louis' old courthouse was the site of one of the most important events in American history. Dred Scott, a slave aged some 50 years, and his wife Harriet, petitioned for their freedom in 1846. The Scotts' two trials, in 1847 and 1850 in Missouri, instigated a series of complex events which resulted in a Supreme Court decision, and ultimately hastened the onset of the American Civil War. The documents contained in this exhibit outline the Scotts' struggle to gain their freedom through litigation, and are the only extant record of this significant case.
Dred Scott was born in Virginia in 1799 as a slave of the Peter Blow family. He spent his life as a slave, and never learned to read or write. Shortly after the Blows moved to St. Louis, Dred was sold to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Dred accompanied Emerson to many posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. During this time, Dred married Harriet Robinson, also a slave, and later had two children. The Scott family returned to St. Louis with Dr. Emerson and his new wife in 1842. When John Emerson died in 1843, Dred, Harriet, and their children were hired out by Mrs. John Emerson to work for other families in St. Louis.
The Scotts' Petition For Freedom
On April 6th, 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit for their freedom. It is not clearly known why Scott chose this time to petition for his freedom, but historians have listed three possibilities:
It is unclear why Dred Scott did not file a petition when he was living in free territories with John Emerson. However, with the support of John Anderson, the Scotts' minister, and the Blow family, Scott filed a petition with the St. Louis courts which would span the next eleven years.
Results of the First and Second Trial
In 1847, the Scotts' first case was dismissed due to the presentation of hearsay evidence. The court allowed the Scotts to refile their suit in the St. Louis Circuit Court, resulting in a second trial. The jury in the second trial proclaimed that Dred Scott and his family should be free. However, Mrs. Emerson appealed the case to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which reversed the ruling in 1852 and returned Dred Scott to slavery. Not to be defeated, Dred Scott fought on for his freedom. Scott filed suit against John F. A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother, who had assumed responsibility for John Emerson's estate. The court also ruled against Scott in this suit, spurring in Scott's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. Supreme Court Ruling
Seven of the nine judges of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that not only was Dred Scott a slave, but that as a slave, Scott had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. The court ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in northern territories, was unconstitutional. Therefore, although Scott had lived in northern territories, he had never earned his freedom.
The Brink of Civil War
The American public reacted very strongly to the ruling, fearing that this case would set precedent for all slaves, and slavery would spread unchecked. The Republican party, founded in 1854 to prohibit the spread of slavery, renewed their fight to gain control of Congress and the courts. In 1860, in a Republican victory, Abraham Lincoln was elected as President of the United States, leading to the secession of South Carolina from the Union. The Dred Scott Decision had moved the nation to the brink of Civil War.
Dred Scott and his family were given back to the Blow family after Mrs. Emerson remarried. The Blows gave the Scotts their freedom in May 1857. Just a year later, in 1858, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis and was buried in St. Louis, never knowing the results of his struggle for freedom.