By Michael Coard
In just a few days on March 6, it will be precisely 163 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 issued the most blatantly racist but most egregiously honest ruling in its entire history when it announced in the Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford case that Blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” And that still applies in 2020.
As noted by Encyclopedia Britannica, constitutional scholars state that this ruling is “widely considered the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court.”
And that’s true for many reasons, some of which I’ll explain in the following list of 15 things you didn’t know about the Dred Scott case:
1. Dred Scott was born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia and, according to scattered family records, that was as early as 1795 or as late as 1800. (By the way, Southampton County is where Nat Turner’s courageous revolt occurred in 1831.)
2. At birth, he was given the name Sam Blow because he was “owned” by the Peter Blow family. But he later personally took on the name of his older brother Dred Scott who had died at a young age.
3. Blow, who transported Scott to Missouri in 1820, died in 1832 after which Scott was “purchased” by Dr. John Emerson, an army surgeon. Emerson’s military tours took him to Rock Island’s Fort Armstrong, Illinois in 1833. Illinois, coincidentally, was a free state. Emerson lived there with Scott until 1836 when he was assigned to Ft. Snelling, which was in an area of the Wisconsin Territory that had banned slavery pursuant to the 1820 Missouri Compromise.
4. While in Ft. Snelling with Emerson, Scott met and in 1836 married the beautiful 19-year-old Harriet Robinson. Then, as “property” of Major Lawrence Taliaferro, she was “sold” to Emerson. Although Mr. and Mrs. Scott remained at Ft. Snelling, Emerson in 1838 was transferred to the Jefferson Barracks Military Post in Missouri. But he didn’t leave the married couple to enjoy any kind of honeymoon. Quite the contrary, during his absence, he “rented them out” like mules.
5. A few months later, Emerson was dispatched to Ft. Jessup, Louisiana where he married Eliza Sanford. The Emerson couple then sent word to the Scotts ordering them to come labor for the Emersons in Louisiana. Mr. Emerson was reassigned to Ft. Snelling in 1838. Within two years, Mr. and Mrs. Scott were sent back to St. Louis where they were “rented out” again. When Emerson died in 1843, his widow, Eliza Irene Sanford Emerson, inherited his estate and for three years continued to “rent out” the Scotts.
6. By 1846, after about a decade and a half of saving the little money he was sometimes permitted to earn when he wasn’t slaving for whites from “can’t see in the morning till can’t see at night” and combining that with
what Mrs. Scott was able to earn under comparable circumstances, Mr. Scott tried to buy his freedom for $300 (which has a value of over $10,000 in 2020) and shortly thereafter his family’s freedom at a higher price. But Mrs. Emerson coldly refused.
7. In response, both Mr. Scott and Mrs. Scott in May of 1846 filed separate lawsuits in Missouri. The legal theory was simple and was based on nearly three decades of state precedent, which held that there can be no slavery in free territories or free states as mandated by state and federal law, including the Missouri Compromise. And since the Scotts had lived in a free territory as well as in a free state, they were no longer enslaved persons but instead were forever free persons.
8. When the case was heard in court in 1847, a Missouri judge dismissed it because he incredibly claimed that the Scotts had failed to present a witness to testify that the family (which then included one young daughter) had been enslaved. WTF? It was obvious they were enslaved!
9. They petitioned for and were granted a new trial. But Mrs. Emerson appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court. This was followed by good news and bad news. The good news is she lost, so a new trial was scheduled. The bad news is while awaiting that new trial, Mr. and Mrs. Scott were held in the custody of the St. Louis County Sheriff- who “rented them out” in the interim.
10. Surprisingly, a jury of six white men in 1850 found in favor of the Scotts. But Mrs. Emerson appealed again to the Missouri Supreme Court. And because she had moved to Massachusetts, she allowed her brother, John F.A. Sanford, to replace her as the named appellant. That’s why the case is officially known as Dred Scott v. Sandford. It incorrectly reads Sandford, not Sanford, because a typo in 1856 by a U.S. Supreme Court clerk was never corrected.
11. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court, which had previously consolidated Mr. and Mrs. Scott’s lawsuits, unsurprisingly reversed the Scott victory, thereby overturning its own 28-year precedent of “once free, always free.” The court went on to say, with a straight face, “Times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made.” Let me translate that legal jargon for those of you who are not lawyers or judges. What the court really said is “We are racist jurists who have no shame. And we will make up racist stuff as we go along whenever we want.”
12. The Scott’s only option was to appeal to federal court, which they did in 1853. But that court, in order to illegally guarantee a win for Sanford, fraudulently applied the law as the state Supreme Court had fraudulently interpreted it. The Scotts then took their case to the nine member U.S. Supreme Court- which included seven who had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents- that reviewed it in 1856 and issued its historic 7-2 racist ruling the following year that Blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The court also ruled that Congress’s Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had banned the expansion of slavery into many northwest territories, was illegal because it was an unconstitutional denial of white people’s Fifth Amendment right to keep their property (i.e., Black human beings). As an aside, I must mention that President James Buchanan had illegally influenced Supreme Court Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania to vote against Scott in the seven member majority so that the ruling would publicly appear to be national and fair instead of southern and unfair.
13. But there was a happy ending for Mr. Scott, Mrs. Scott, and their two young daughters, Eliza and Lizzie. When a man named Calvin Chaffee, who was not only a congressman but also an abolitionist, proposed to Mrs. Emerson to become her new husband, he insisted that she free the entire Scott family. She grudgingly complied by agreeing to the price offered by the woke sons of Peter Blow, who was Mr. Scott’s first “owner.” They used their wealth to free the Scott family on May 26, 1857. Mr. Scott then worked as a hotel porter in St. Louis until he became an ancestor on Sept. 17, 1858. Mrs. Scott joined him as an ancestor 18 years later in 1876.
14. In 1997, both Mr. Dred Scott and Mrs. Harriet Robinson Scott were formally and posthumously inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
15. It must be realized that the Dred Scott decision has never been directly overturned by the Supreme Court (despite Congress’ passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 and the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and despite the Court’s own ruling in the Slaughter-House Cases in 1873).
Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this column first appeared.