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Dred Scott

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The Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court in March 1857 was one of the major steps on the road to secession. Dred Scott was a slave who was taken to Missouri from Virginia and sold. His new master then moved to Illinois (a free state) for a while but soon moved back to Missouri. Upon his master's death, Scott claimed that since he had resided in a free state, he was consequentially a free man. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court.

As stated by Supreme Court Justice C. J. Taney, "In considering this...controversy, two questions arise: First, was Scott, together with his family, free in Missouri by reason of his stay in the territory of the United States hereinbefore mentioned? And second, if they were not, is Scott himself free by reason of his removal to Rock Island, in the state of Illinois...?" Both of these questions led to an even greater and more central question: "Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen?"

The Court's decision (7 against, 2 for) was declared on March 6, 1857. Due to the variance of opinions on why the Court decided as they did (all seven justices who decided against Scott wrote opinion papers for the case), the opinion of Justice Taney is generally cited for the majority. According to Taney, the Court decided that Scott (and hence all negro slaves or their descendants) was not a citizen of the United States or the state of Missouri, and thus not entitled to sue in the federal courts. Justice Taney then went beyond this point and ruled on the entire issue of slavery in federal territories, claiming that slaves were property and therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

Most people, whether for or against the decision, viewed it as a political decision and not a legal one. For the first time since Marbury vs. Madison in 1803 (and only the second time ever) the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress (the Missouri Compromise) null and void. The decision also lowered the Court's prestige in the North and widened the sectional cleavage by moving Southerners from the position that slavery could not be kept out of the territories to the assertion that it must be protected in them.

Dred Scott, a slave in Missouri, had been taken by his owner, John Emerson, into Illinois, where slavery had been prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and into the Louisiana Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. After his return to Missouri, Scott brought suit against Emerson's widow, claiming that he was free by reason of his residence in free territory. The Missouri supreme court ruled against him, but after his ownership was transferred to Mrs. Emerson's brother, John F. A. Sanford of New York, Scott brought a similar suit in federal court. The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) held that a black slave could not become a citizen under the U.S. Constitution based on that Scott had not become free by virtue of his residence in a territory covered by the Missouri Compromise, since that legislation was unconstitutional. This was viewed as a proslavery decision by the abolitionists, and the case probably hastened the coming of the Civil War. That issue aside, it was the second time that the

Court had declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, the first having occurred 54 years earlier, in Marbury vs. Madison.

The slavery debate presented supporters and opponents of the institution with two very important questions: how should fugitives from slavery be treated in jurisdictions where slavery was illegal, and should a slave brought into a free state by his master be viewed as free?

The first question was partially addressed by Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution and by the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850; however the second question had not as yet been addressed. During the 1830s and 1840s a slave by the name of Dred Scott accompanied his master, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, on numerous trips to military posts around the country, including the free states of Illinois and the territory of Wisconsin. In 1846 Scott sued his master for his freedom, asserting that his sojourns in free jurisdictions made him free. After numerous delays, trials, and retrials, the case reached the Supreme Court in 1856. The court responded with nine separate opinions, and Chief Justice Roger Brook Taney delivered the deciding opinion. The ruling was both complex and controversial: the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress did not have authority to limit the

expansion of slavery; slavery was found to be legal in the territories until the citizens voted for or against- it; and Africans and their descendants were found to be ineligible for citizenship in the United States as the framers of the Constitution had not viewed Africans as citizens. Since African Americans were not viewed by the court as citizens, they could not file suit. Despite the finality of the court's decision, the issue of slavery remained unresolved.

The story of the Missouri slave Dred Scott and his quest for freedom is one of the least known and yet most influential from the turbulent years leading up to when Abraham Lincoln would be elected President in the Early Years: 1809 Ð'- 1833.

Plea in abatement, when may be reviewed -- the word "citizen" in the Constitution does not embrace one of the negro race -- negro cannot become a citizen -- slave not made free by residence in a free state or territory -- Declaration of Independence does not include slaves as part of the people -- the rights and privileges conferred by the Constitution upon citizens do not apply to the negro race -- Constitution should have the meaning intended when it was adopted -- court may examine other errors besides plea in abatement -- Constitution expressly affirms right of property in slaves -- Missouri compromise unconstitutional and void.

Where a plea in abatement, by defendant, to the jurisdiction of the court below is overruled on demurrer, and the defendant thereupon pleads in bar upon which issues were joined and the trial and verdict were in his favor, and the plaintiff thereupon brought the case into this court by writ of error, and the plea and demurrer below upon it are part of the record; held, that this court has power to review the decision of the court below upon the plea in abatement.

It is therefore the duty of the court to decide whether the facts stated in the plea, are or are not



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