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The Historical Significance of the Dred Scott Case

The Dred Scott Case of 1857 was on of the most influential court cases in American history. It helped put the North and the South on the road to war.

The Dred Scott Case of 1857 was on of the most influential court cases in in American history. It was an opportunity for abolitionists to win an early victory against the institution of slavery in the United States. Their failure to do that prolonged the abolition of slavery and added fuel to the ongoing feud between the Northern and Southern states. Ultimately, that feud developed into the bloodiest war the United States has ever fought.

Dred Scott was a African slave first owned by the Blow family who lived in Alabama and Missouri. He was later sold to Dr. Emerson, an army doctor, who traveled extensively in territories like Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited by an ordinance. Even though Dred Scott was considered the property of Dr. Emerson, some argued that Dr. Emerson forfeited his right to Dred Scott by traveling to states that did recognize slavery. Some, including Dred Scott himself, believed that Dred Scott should be given his freedom by default.

Scott filed for freedom in St Louis in 1846 with the help of the Blow family arguing that he had lived in free territories for long enough time and was therefore no longer a slave. The jury freed him, saying that according to the Missouri Doctrine, once a slave was free, he would always be free. Three years later however, an appeal by Sanford, the brother-in-law of the late Dr Emerson, reversed the decision of the original trial and Scott became slave again. Eventually, Dred Scott appealed to the Supreme Court. The Dred Scott v. Sanford Case was presided by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. It remains one of the most memorable cases in the court’s history.

The case was argued vehemently by both sides. Some argued that Dred Scott ought to be freed since he had entered a free state where slavery was prohibited by law. Others believed that slaves were personal property of their owners who could take them wherever they went and that it would be wrongful to deprive anyone of their property. To this group, what mattered was the citizenship of the owner, not what state he happened to be in at any particular time. The Supreme Court decided in favor of Sanford in a 7-2 verdict.

The consequences of the Dred Scott case effected more than just one African slave, however. In delivering the verdict, Taney endorsed the opinion that the African Americans were not citizens, and that slaves could not even approach the courts (They did not have legal rights). The decision brought the Missouri Compromise in conflict with the Fifth Amendment that upheld that no one be deprived of his or her right to life, liberty, and property. The judgment served to deepen the rift between the believers of the principle of states rights (that the states be allowed to decide on the whether they want slavery or not) and that those who opposed it.

The decision was supported by the then President Buchanan. It did not resolve the slavery issue, but only widened the gulf between the Northern states and the Southern states. The Southerners thought that the Supreme Court decision was step towards extending slavery throughout the land and it was not until the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments eventually overturned the decision in 1865 and 1868 that slavery was completely abolished. Dred Scott, for his part, was resold by the Emerson widow to his original owners, the Blow family. He was eventually freed, but died soon afterwards.

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