Dred Scott was a slave who lived during the early 19th century and was the first slave who sued his master for freedom in a court of law. He was born into slavery in Virginia and was the property of the Peter Blow family. His birth name was Sam, but he changed it to Dred after his dead brother. The Blow family were farmers in Alabama who later moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Before moving, they sold their slaves to an army doctor named John Emerson. In 1836, Scott fell in love with a slave girl named Harriett Robinson, who belonged to another army doctor named Major Lawrence Taliaferro. Taliaferro sold Harriett to Emerson so that Scott and Harriett could be married.
Two years later, Dr. Emerson married a lady named Eliza Irene Sanford, and the family, along with their slaves, moved to Missouri shortly after. Emerson then left the army and died in 1843. Upon his master’s death, Scott tried to purchase his freedom from Emerson’s widow but she refused. Dred Scott decided to take the matter to the courts and in 1846, he filed a law suit in St Louis Circuit Court. The trial was held in 1847, and Scott lost. A retrial was called for, and this time, a jury in Missouri ruled that since Scott and Harriett had lived with Emerson in the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin (that is, slavery was illegal there), they should be granted their freedom since they were being illegally held as slaves there to begin with. Scott was successful in winning his freedom in this historic ruling in 1850.
Emerson’s widow appealed this decision to the Missouri Supreme Court and the subsequent ruling was made in her favor. The court ruled that the idea of “once free, always free” was no longer applicable, a rule that had been upheld for 28 years previously. Only one judge supported this decision, but the majority ruling was against them, and Scott and his wife were returned to Mrs. Emerson. After Dr. Emerson’s death, the estate legally came under Mrs. Emerson’s brother, John F. A. Sanford, who was a citizen of New York. Scott and his wife challenged the Supreme Court decision in the federal court, on the grounds of diverse ownership. This case was tried again in 1857, with the ruling that since Scott and his wife were not recognized as citizens of the United States, they had no right to sue a white man in a court of law.
The court also nullified the terms of the “Missouri Compromise”, a clause that had prohibited slavery in certain states. Slaves were considered their owners’ private property, which under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibited anyone from taking another’s private property. This decision stirred trouble and increased the divide between the Northern and Southern states, acting as an instigator towards the Civil War. Mrs. Emerson remarried a man named Calvin C. Chaffee who was an abolitionist. He insisted that the Scotts be returned to the Blow family, who granted Scott and his wife freedom in May 1857. Unfortunately, Dred Scott died from tuberculosis less than two years after finally winning his freedom.
The Dred Scott v. Sandford case was important for setting the precedent to the abolition of slavery, and was one of the forerunners of the American Civil War. Eventually, the verdict given by this decision was overruled by the Emancipation Proclamation directed by President Abraham Lincoln, as well as by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution.