What Was Abraham Lincoln’S Concern About The Supreme Court’S Dred Scott Decision?

Facts about the Dred Scott Decision, one of the Causes of the American Civil War


Dred Scott Decision summary: Dred Scott was a slave who sought his freedom through the American legal system. The 1857 decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case denied his plea, determining that no Negro, the term then used to describe anyone with African blood, was or could ever be a citizen. The decision also invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had placed restrictions on slavery in certain U.S. territories. Northern abolitionists were outraged. The Dred Scott case became a rallying point for them and contributed to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860.

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Dred Scott Facts


1795, Southampton County, Virginia,


September 17, 1858, St. Louis, Missouri


Dred Scott Vs. Sanford case in the U.S. Supreme Court, better known as the Dred Scott Decision

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Dred Scott’s Early Life

Dred Scott was born in Virginia around 1800; birth records were spotty even among the white population and much more so where slaves were concerned. His owner, Peter Blow, removed to Alabama and then, in 1830, to St. Louis, Missouri, taking his slaves with him.

Blow died two years later, and Scott was sold to an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson. In 1833, Emerson took Scott with him when he was assigned to duty in Illinois. When Illinois entered the Union in 1818, the state’s constitution included the phrase, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall herein by introduced into this state otherwise than for the punishment of crimes.” This wording allowed residents who already owned slaves to retain them as property, while circumventing the United States Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery in the area of what was then called the Northwest Territory. Technically, Illinois was a “free state,” but hundreds of slaves remained in bondage there well into the 19th century.

Dred Scott Gets Married As A Slave

In 1836, Dr. Emerson was reassigned to a fort in Wisconsin Territory, again taking Scott with him. Scott met and married a slave named Harriet Robinson, and her ownership was transferred to Emerson. The doctor left his slaves behind when the Army transferred him again, first to St. Louis and then to Louisiana. In Louisiana, he met and married Eliza Irene Sanford, who was visiting from St. Louis. The couple returned to that city, and Emerson sent for his slave couple, who made the 1,000-mile trip down the Mississippi to rejoin him; apparently they were not accompanied by anyone and might have tried escaping to a free state or to Canada but did not make the attempt.

Filing Suit For His Freedom

Only after the doctor died in 1843 and his widow hired Scott out to another Army captain did he try to arrange freedom for himself and his wife. The couple and Mrs. Emerson were living in St. Louis by then, and Scott offered her $300 for their manumission. She refused. Both Scotts took the matter to court, filing separately; they had lived for extended periods in a free territory, and he had lived in a free state. Therefore, their petitions claimed they were free, based on the 1824 Missouri Supreme Court decision in Winny v. Whitesides, which established the standard, “once free, always free” in cases of this matter. Ironically, his first trial, in June 1847, was tossed out on a technicality—he couldn’t prove he and Harriet were owned by Mrs. Emerson.

In an 1850 retrial, the couple were granted their freedom, only to have it taken away by the Missouri Supreme Court after two years. At the time the case went to the state supreme court, all parties agreed that the decision in Dred Scott’s case would also apply to Harriet’s. Up to this point, it was a run-of-the-mill case of its type, not uncommon in Missouri. However, many people believe the state’s supreme court justices, who reflected Missouri’s increasingly pro-slavery stance, were looking for an opportunity to overturn the decisions that had benefitted slaves seeking freedom. Their decision denying the Scotts’ freedom appears to be when the case took on political overtones. It was also during this hearing that Mrs. Emerson’s lawyer introduced for the first time the argument questioning the authority of the U.S. Congress to prohibit slavery in the territories.

Dred Scott Vs. Sanford Goes To The Supreme Court

Scott appealed to the United States Circuit Court in Missouri, which upheld the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision. Scott and his lawyers then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The odds there were not in his favor. Five of the nine justices were from slave-holding families. By this time, nearly a decade had passed since Scott first sought freedom through the courts. Along the way Mrs. Emerson’s brother, John Sanford of New York, claimed he now owned the slaves, for reasons that have never been determined. Scott’s lawyers used an argument based on the fact the defendant—Sanford—and the plaintiff were from different states, shifting the focus of the case to whether the Supreme Court had jurisdiction and whether or not Scott was a citizen of the United States.

The Dred Scott Decision


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In March 1857, the majority opinion stated that because of Scott’s race he was not a citizen and had no right to sue under the Constitution. Stretching beyond the case of the moment, the court’s decision also invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that had for nearly 40 years placed restrictions on slavery north of the parallel 36 degrees, 30 minutes, in the vast territory of the Louisiana Purchase.

Scott’s abolitionist lawyers might have hoped for a landmark decision but not the one they got. The Supreme Court’s ruling galvanized the abolition movement and spurred Abraham Lincoln to publicly speak out against it, the event that led to the resurgence of his personal political career.

Dred Scott Finally Gets His Freedom

Throughout the ordeal, part of Scott’s legal fees had been paid by the sons of his original owner, Peter Blow. Their reasons for doing so are one of many mysteries surrounding this case. After failing to obtain his freedom through the courts, they arranged to purchase Dred and Harriet Scott and set them free. Irene Emerson had re-married; her husband, Dr. Calvin Chaffee, was an abolitionist Massachusetts Congressman who was being disparaged for his connections to the case, although the original suits predated his marriage. He arranged to transfer ownership of the Scotts, and his wife accepted $750 for them.

Dred Scott did not get to enjoy his freedom very long. He died nine months later, September 17, 1858. Harriet, who had been a teenager when they wed, lived until June 17, 1876. They had four children: two sons who died in infancy and two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie. Lizzie, who would live to the age of 99, had no children. Eliza did, however, and there are still descendants of Dred and Harriet Scott living today.

Banner imagePetition for Leave to Sue For Freedom, from the FirstCircuit Court Case 1846-1847,the Missouri State Archives andWashington University in St. Louis.

Dred Scott Decision: The Lawsuit That Started The Civil War

By Gregory J. Wallance

The Chief Justice of the United States was dying and would not live out the day. On October 12, 1864, three physicians were summoned to Roger B. Taney’s small bedroom in a stucco house on Indiana Avenue. When Dr. James C. Hall, the chief justice’s usual physician, entered, Taney expressed his regret at not being able to rise. After an examination, all three physicians agreed that the end was mere hours away. Taney’s semi-invalid daughter, Ellen, sat by her father’s bedside. ‘My dear child,’ he said in a nearly inaudible voice, ‘my race is run. I have no desire to stay longer in this painful world, but for my poor children.’

Dr. Hall, perhaps to distract his patient, read from an article in the Baltimore Sun about the election soon to be held in Maryland. Voters would decide whether or not to adopt a state constitution under which slaves would be set free without compensation to their owners. He then read a letter printed by the newspaper suggesting that the oath of allegiance proposed by President Abraham Lincoln and included in the new constitution might be taken even though conscience disapproved. ‘There must be no compromise of principle,’ said the chief justice with surprising strength.

History does not record the thoughts of the physicians, but undoubtedly they recalled the great case of seven years earlier that had set in motion the events which would free the slaves in Maryland — and later every state — and had all but extinguished the old order, just as Taney’s life was flickering out. Whatever else he did in that case, the chief justice had not compromised.

The great case was Scott v. Sandford, the most consequential opinion ever issued by the U.S. Supreme Court. The author of the opinion was Chief Justice Taney, who held that Negroes in bondage were property without rights and that Congress had no power to limit the expansion of slavery. The opinion ignited a political firestorm that set the nation irrevocably on the path to what novelist/historian Shelby Foote has called ‘the crossroads of our being.’

An illiterate slave, Dred Scott, as humble a litigant as could be imagined, managed to get the case to the Supreme Court. Little is known of Scott’s origin, other than he was born in Virginia on the farm of the Peter Blow family, which later moved to St. Louis and became prominent. In St. Louis, Scott was sold by the Blow family to a U.S. Army doctor named John Emerson. Dr. Emerson was eventually ordered to a fort in Illinois, a free state, and then to Fort Snelling in what is now Minnesota but was then a territory where slavery was banned under the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Emerson took Scott with him as a personal valet, also planning to hire him out to residents of the forts, a common practice at the time. At Fort Snelling, Scott met and married slave girl Harriet Robinson, who had been acquired by Emerson from the fort’s Indian agent. Dred Scott managed to raise two children and keep his family from being sold — no mean feat for a slave.

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Emerson, accompanied by his slaves, returned to St. Louis after leaving the Army. After his sudden death in 1843, his wife Irene became the Scotts’ owner. Dred Scott tried to buy his freedom, but Irene Emerson refused to let the family go. Scott then demonstrated a remarkable ability to find lawyers to bring a series of lawsuits aimed at attaining his own and his family’s freedom.

Dred and Harriet Scott’s first petitions were filed in state court in St. Louis in 1846. Their lawyers relied on an 1824 Missouri Supreme Court case, Winny v. Whitesides, in which the Court held that when a master takes a slave to a free state ‘and by the length of residence there indicates an intention of making that place his residence and that of his slave,’ the slave is permanently freed. The court had followed the Winny ruling in every similar case presented over the next two decades, including one, Rachel v. Walker, where the slave won her freedom because her owner, a U.S. Army officer, had taken her to Fort Snelling in free territory. The Scotts’ claim appeared to be open and shut.

The case was tried twice, in 1847 and again in 1850, in what is now known in St. Louis as the Old Courthouse. As the Scotts walked into the building on the first day of trial they could have passed a slave auction, since the courthouse steps were used by St. Louis slave dealers. Such was the peculiarity of slave law that the Scotts could sue for their freedom inside a courthouse on whose outside steps they might be bought and sold.

Both trials were presided over by Judge Alexander Hamilton, an anti-slavery Pennsylvanian. The simple task of the Scotts’ attorneys was to prove that Irene Emerson had owned Dred and Harriet in a free state or territory. Because slaves were barred from testifying, even in their own lawsuits, the Scotts’ proof had to come from former residents of the Army forts who had known the Emersons and their slaves.

The Scotts’ lawyers botched the trial by calling the wrong witness from Fort Snelling, one Samuel Russell. He testified that, while Dred Scott had been hired out to his wife, he had no knowledge of Irene Emerson’s ownership of the Scotts. As a result, the jury returned a verdict for Irene Emerson. As historian Don E. Fehrenbacher later wrote, ‘The decision had the absurd effect of allowing Mrs. Emerson to keep her slaves simply because no one had proved that they were her slaves.’ The Scotts’ attorneys moved for a new trial, arguing that they had been surprised by Russell’s testimony. Judge Hamilton granted the motion for retrial.


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Dred Scott managed to find new lawyers. At the 1850 trial they called Mrs. Russell, who testified that Irene Emerson was the owner of the Scotts. Judge Hamilton gave a charge based on the Winny case that required a verdict for the Scotts if the jury found that they had resided either in a free state or in a territory in which the Missouri Compromise barred slavery, which they indisputably had. The jury found in favor of the Scotts.

Irene Emerson appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, where it was heard in 1852. The timing could not have been worse for the Scotts because sectional conflict over slavery had begun to boil over. In an opinion filled with resentful language, the Missouri Supreme Court, by a vote of 2-1, reversed the judgment freeing the Scotts. The court repudiated its rulings in the Winny v. Whitesides and Rachel v. Walker cases and excoriated perceived Northern hypocrisy about slavery: ‘we will not go to them to learn law, morality or religion on the subject.’

There Dred Scott’s quest for freedom could have ended. But this persistent slave managed to find new lawyers to take up his cause. His adversary had also changed — Irene Emerson had remarried and left St. Louis, and now her brother, John Sanford, who lived in New York, owned the Scott family. Dred Scott’s new attorney was Roswell Field, a lawyer from Vermont who left for St. Louis after an ill-fated marriage to a much younger woman. Field was later assisted by young Harvard Law School graduate and fellow Vermonter Arba Crane, who formed a close friendship with Dred Scott. Field filed a new suit in federal court on the basis of Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, commonly known as the diversity clause, which gives federal courts jurisdiction over suits between citizens of different states. Scott, alleged to be a free citizen of Missouri, would be suing John Sanford, a citizen of New York. It was not a far-fetched theory because several Southern courts had recognized that the act of emancipation conferred at least some citizenship rights on a freed slave.

Scott v. Sandford (the federal courts misspelled Sanford’s name) was filed in the federal circuit court of St. Louis in 1853. The lawsuit again asserted that Scott had been freed by his residence in Illinois and at Fort Snelling. The case was assigned to Judge Robert W. Wells, a Virginian who had been attorney general of Missouri. Wells rejected Sanford’s argument that Negroes of African ancestry could never be citizens within the meaning of the diversity clause. He held that ‘every person born in the United States and capable of holding property was a citizen having the right to sue in the United States courts.’

While Scott had convinced the court that it had the jurisdiction to hear his case, he still had to prove that his travels to Illinois and Fort Snelling had freed him under the law of Missouri. The case went to trial in 1854. Judge Wells, though sympathetic to the Scotts, had no choice but to give a charge that reflected the ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court in Scott v. Emerson, since the federal case concerned solely a wrongful imprisonment charge and Scott had never proven unequivocally in any state case that he was declared free in Illinois. This amounted to a continuation of Scott’s servitude.

Scott’s attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sitting on that highest court were four slave state justices, four justices from free states and Roger Taney from Maryland, a border state that permitted slavery.

It is easy in hindsight to see why the Scott lawyers might have viewed Taney as a possible fifth vote in their favor. As a young lawyer, Taney had defended an abolitionist minister against charges of inciting slaves to rebellion. In his summation, he told the jury in defense of his client that ‘Until the time shall come when we can point without a blush, to the language in the Declaration of Independence, every friend of humanity will seek to lighten the galling chain of slavery and better, to the utmost of his power, the wretched condition of the slave.’ The jury, made up mostly of slave owners, acquitted the minister.

Taney had freed his own slaves and, after joining the Supreme Court, voted to free the slaves in the Amistad case. Once called a man with a ‘moonlit mind’ because it shone with ‘all of the moon’s brightness but none of its glare,’ Taney had sided with Northern interests in nonslavery cases. In appearance he was frail and soft-spoken, to some resembling an old wizard, but his eyes shone with bright and piercing intelligence.

The case was argued in the Supreme Court in 1855 and again in late 1856, just as Americans began to debate slavery with more than words. On May 21, 1856, border ruffians sacked the free-state town of Lawrence, Kan., in the conflict known as ‘Bleeding Kansas.’ The next day, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an outspoken abolitionist, was beaten half to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks. Two days after that John Brown — who, as one of his sons remembered, went ‘crazy’ at the news of the beating — led a raid on Osawatomie, Kan., killing five pro-slavery men.

The Scott case also coincided with tragedy in the Taney family. For many years, the family had vacationed at Old Point Comfort near Norfolk, Va. In the summer that the case reached the Supreme Court, an outbreak of cholera was reported in Norfolk. Taney’s daughter, Alice, was invited by concerned friends to vacation instead in Newport, R.I. She asked her father’s permission in a letter. He wrote in response, ‘I have not the slightest confidence in the superior health of Newport over Old Point and I look upon it as nothing more than that unfortunate feeling of inferiority in the South, which believes everything in the North to be superior to what we have.’

Taney’s daughter canceled plans to vacation in Newport and went to Old Point Comfort, where she contracted cholera and died. Her mother died of a stroke the same day. Taney, then 78 years old, had begun writing his autobiography at Old Point Comfort. As Taney biographer Carl Swisher wrote: ‘The broken-hearted family boarded a boat for Baltimore. Taney was leaving Old Point, the scene of many happy summers and of one terrible tragedy, never to return, and the writing of the story of his life, which had begun there, was never to be resumed.’ Another historian suggested that the tragedy deprived Taney of emotional reserves necessary to maintain judicial balance.

In the Supreme Court, Dred Scott was represented by Montgomery Blair, from one of the most influential families in American politics. John Sanford was represented by Missouri Senator Henry Geyer and Reverdy Johnson, regarded as the country’s leading Supreme Court advocate. After the first argument, it was clear that Geyer and Johnson were defending nothing less than slavery itself. In response to Scott’s claim to freedom by virtue of residence in a territory where slavery had been banned by the Missouri Compromise, they argued that the Compromise was unconstitutional. In challenging the authority of Congress to limit the expansion of slavery, the Sanford attorneys struck at the foundation of the legislative compromises that had saved the Union.

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Instead of issuing an opinion, the Supreme Court set the case down for another argument in December 1856. That November, Democrat James Buchanan won the presidential election, beating John Frmont, the candidate of the emerging Republican Party. According to Fehrenbacher, when the Scott case was argued yet again, on December 15, 1856, ‘Every one of the nine justices must have realized by this time that the Court had an explosive package on its hands. Many more people were now aware of what might be at stake in one Negro’s suit for freedom.’

Following the second argument, the Supreme Court was initially divided. Finally, a majority coalesced around a sweeping opinion. At the suggestion of Justice James M. Wayne, the author would be Chief Justice Taney, who, according to Fehrenbacher, ‘behind his mask of judicial propriety’ had become ‘a bitter sectionalist, seething with anger at Northern insult and Northern aggression.’

In February 1857, Justice John Catron of Tennessee wrote to president-elect Buchanan, urging him to press Pennsylvania’s Justice Robert C. Grier to join a majority opinion. Buchanan wrote to Justice Grier, who agreed to concur with the chief justice. Buchanan, now privy to the forthcoming ruling, declared at his inauguration on March 4, 1857, that the Supreme Court would soon settle the issue of ‘when the people of a Territory shall decide this question for themselves.’ By today’s standards, and perhaps even in those days, Buchanan’s statement was a flagrant breach of judicial ethics.

On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court was filled, and many were turned away. For two hours, Chief Justice Taney, about to turn 80 years old, read from the Court’s opinion in a nearly inaudible voice. He first held that Scott, as a Negro of African ancestry, had no rights, including the right to sue in federal court as a citizen: ‘They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and, so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect….’


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