March 6, 2014
Dred Scott: A freedom fighter

March 6th marks the day that the United States Supreme Court issued one of its worst, shortsighted, morally bankrupt, and unjust decisions in its history.  This was the day that the court handed down its decision in the Dred Scott case. The year was 1857.  And this case was intended to justify and solidify the institution of slavery in the United States.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)

Facts of the Case: Dred Scott was born into slavery and owned by an army surgeon named Emerson in Missouri. Dr. Emerson moved Dred Scott to Illinois and Wisconsin, which were both free states.  They later returned to Missouri. In 1846, Dred Scott sued for his freedom because of the extensive amount of time that he lived in free states and territories. He was seeking freedom for himself, his wife, and children.

Scott lost his case in the St. Louis District Court but won in the Court of Appeals. The Missouri Supreme Court decided against Scott. With the help of abolitionist friends, Scott sued for his freedom in the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court decided against Dred Scott.  Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the decision. The Court held:

  • Missouri Compromise, which made certain states free, was unconstitutional;
  • Congress could not prohibit slavery in any state; and
  • A slave could not sue because he was not a citizen.

Justice Taney stated,

 “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.”

 Effect of the Court’s decision: The country became even more polarized on the issue of slavery. The south was ecstatic. The north was angry. As the country was already divided about slavery and the possibility of war was looming like a cloud over the country, the Dred Scott decision further divided the country and made civil war inevitable. Many people believe that Justice Taney was trying to turn the country into a slave nation thereby turning all Black people (free and non-free) into slaves.

Justice Taney, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, clearly showed his predisposition toward maintaining and expanding slavery in the United States. As a former slave-owner (as well as four other Supreme Court justices), he used the Constitution to find support for slavery and to deny rights to any Black person.  This decision removed the rights of states to decide whether they would be slave or free states. It removed the power of the federal government from making any decisions about the status or expansion of slavery.

“The Blacks had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.”

~ Justice Roger Taney, Dred Scott v. Sandford

But abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison lobbied, fought, and demanded an end to the terrible institution of slavery.

 The Civil War ended the debate over slavery.

And the 13th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution made slavery illegal and guaranteed equal protection under the laws.

Dred Scott did not live to witness the end of slavery and reap the benefits of his brave contribution. He died of tuberculosis on September 17, 1858.

He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. His gravestone reads:

 “In memory of a simple man who wanted to be free.”

 Despite losing his case, Dred Scott lived the last 10 months of his life as a free man.

 It is very important that we, as Americans, never forget this decision because it shows how fragile that rights—even the most basic rights—can be for less powerful groups of people. It is equally important that we remember the courageous and visionary people, like Dred Scott, who fought for human rights.

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