The Supreme Court and Slavery

Dred Scott

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 eliminated both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850.  It allowed new territories to decide for themselves whether to enter the union as slave or free states.  Significantly, however, the Kansas-Nebraska Act retained the provision from the Organic Act of 1850 that allowed appeals to the United States Supreme Court in all cases involving title to enslaved persons regardless of the amount in controversy. After 1854 so many cases were filed in territorial and state courts to determine title to slaves and their families that Supreme Court review became virtually inevitable.

One of the cases involved Dred Scott, a slave of military physician John Emerson.  Emerson took Scott from Missouri (a slave state) to a military post in Rock Island, Illinois (a free state) in 1834.  In April 1836, they moved to Fort Snelling, a military post north of Missouri.  Fort Snelling was in free territory under the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Two years later, Emerson and the now Scott family returned to Missouri.  Emerson died in 1843, leaving his slaves to his widow.  

In 1846, abolitionist lawyers sued for Scott’s freedom in a Missouri state court.  They argued Scott’s residence in a free state (Illinois) and a free territory (Fort Snelling) had liberated him from slavery.  They were confident they would win, because in 1836, in Rachel v. Walker, the Missouri Supreme Court had held that removal of an enslaved person by his master to a free state made the slave forever free.  The trial court, relying on Rachel, ruled in Scott’s favor and declared him free.  Emerson’s estate appealed.  The Missouri Supreme Court overruled Rachel and reversed the trial court.  Scott was returned to slavery. 

Scott did not appeal the Missouri Supreme Court decision to the Supreme Court of the United States because it would have been futile to do so.  In 1850, in Strader v. Graham, the Supreme Court had held that each state should be allowed to decide for itself whether an enslaved person’s time in a free territory or country changed that person’s status from enslaved to free.    Consistent with his view that the Constitution left to the states important questions involving their own governance, Chief Justice Taney had written:  “Every state has an undoubted right to determine the status, or domestic and social condition, of the persons domiciled within its territory.”  

Scott then filed a case in the United States District Court for the District of Missouri against John Sanford (his name was misspelled as “Sandford” in court records and never was corrected), to whom Mrs. Emerson had entrusted administration of her late husband’s estate.  The claim was for false imprisonment.    The trial judge instructed the jury that Scott was a slave under Missouri law and that Sanford therefore could not be found liable for false imprisonment.  The jury found for Sanford.  Scott petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of error.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in February 1856.  The court ordered the case reargued in December because of a split of opinion among the justices about jurisdiction.  The appeal raised two questions: Did a federal court have jurisdiction to hear the case?  Was Scott a citizen of Missouri?  

Congress Turns to the Supreme Court

James Buchanan had been elected President in November 1856. His inaugural address on March 4, 1857, included the following remark about the case:

A difference of opinion has arisen in regard to the point of time when the people of a Territory shall decide [the question of slavery] for themselves.  

This is, happily, a matter of but little practical importance. Besides, it is a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled. To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be. . .

The President thus joined Congress in looking to the Supreme Court to resolve by means of a judicial decision a problem that had vexed the country since the days of the Constitutional Convention.  Recall that in 1800, John Jay had dismissed the Supreme Court as lacking the “energy, weight and dignity” to play a significant role in the nation’s new government.  In a span of approximately 50 years, the Supreme Court had matured into an institution that occupied a powerful position in the American political system.  The other two branches  now looked to the Court to decide as a legal matter a question that seemed incapable of political resolution.