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African American Journey: Missouri Compromise

Old Courthouse: Dred Scott Decision

United States Free/Slave Soil Map - 1820 - The Missouri Compromise

Law professor shines light on 'Mrs. Dred Scott'



Tonight's Main Event... Underdog Dred Scott takes on Heavyweight Champion, the United States of Americaaaaa!

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St. Louis' famous Old Court House
Here's a little scenario to contemplate: You live in Missouri and your primary means of transportation is a shiny, red bicycle. You ride this bicycle to and from school, your friend's house, the park and the neighborhood pool. You can't imagine your life without it. One summer, you and your family drive out to Illinois to visit Aunt Gertrude with your beloved bicycle strapped to the roof of your car, but as soon as you cross the state line, you discover that bikes are banned in Illinois! For the entire summer, you have to leave your bicycle in Aunt G's shed and walk everywhere. You can't wait to get home to Missouri so that you can ride your bike again. Finally, that day arrives -- you're back home in good old St. Louis! You eagerly hop on your bike, but before you make it past the driveway, a policeman stops you for questioning. When he learns that you took your bicycle to Illinois, he confiscates it - forever.

Here's the $10,000 question: Can he do that? It's a tough question, isn't it? The United States Supreme Court struggled with a similar dilemma of property rights back in the 1850s, and ultimately decided that an individual owner's rights prevailed over state law. Except they weren't talking about bicycles. They were talking about human beings, and it took the sacrifice of 600,000 lives in the Civil War to overturn this decision. This is the story of one of the most important court cases in our nation's history. It was brought about by Dred Scott, an African-American slave described as "a simple man who wanted to be free."

For many years, Dred Scott was the "property" of the Peter Blow family and lived Missouri, a state where it was legal to own slaves. When the Blows experienced some financial difficulties, they sold Scott to a military surgeon named Dr. John Emerson. Here is where things get tricky. Scott accompanied the doctor to his military posts in Illinois and Wisconsin - two states where slavery was banned. For nine years, he lived on free soil. Eventually, Dr. Emerson received orders to go back home to Missouri. Once again, Scott was in a state that allowed slavery. However, Dr. Emerson soon died, thus leaving Scott in the hands of his widow.

Portrait of Dred and Harriet Scott
At this point, Dred Scott had a wife and children who represented all he ever wanted in life, except for one thing - Freedom. So on April 6, 1846, he and his wife Harriet filed a lawsuit against the Widow Emerson for their freedom, claiming that they had once lived on free soil. They contended that according to Missouri law, once a slave was free, they were always free.

The Dred Scott case was heard in a courtroom similar to this
The lawsuit brought about 11 draining years of lawyers, court cases and litigation. As hard as it is to believe, the main issue of contention was not about the Scotts' human rights. It was about the Widow Emerson's property rights. Back then, people who supported slavery considered African-Americans "objects" that could be bought, owned or sold -- like shiny red bicycles. Viewing the situation from that twisted perspective, it was thought to be unfair that a widow would lose a slave like Dred Scott, who was worth the equivalent of $14,000.


Drivers in the Midwest continuously amaze me.

This case went all the way from the state courthouse of St. Louis, Missouri to the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. On March 6, 1857, seven out of nine justices ruled in favor of the Widow Emerson, but wait - it gets worse. The Chief Justice said that, as a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States and had no right to bring a lawsuit to the federal court in the first place. He further declared that all slaves were personal property - even in states like Illinois. This interpretation of the law basically meant that laws like the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which in part allowed Maine to enter the US as a free state and Missouri to enter as a slave state) were invalid. According to the court opinion, slaves "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

Stephanie and Daphne stand beneath the Gateway to the West
Can you imagine?! So much for our Constitution's claim that "all men are created equal"! This single opinion drastically affected the lives of every African-American in the nation. At least before, there had always been the possibility of earning enough money to buy one's freedom. Now, even that dream had been shattered.

Daphne pays respects to Dred Scott
To be sure, this decision did not rest well with abolitionists in the North. They took it as solid proof that the South wanted to extend slavery throughout the nation. Abraham Lincoln was among the first to speak out against it, and others were quick to follow. The rift between the North and the South widened deeply. Within four years, the country realized that, in Lincoln's words, "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Parts of the pro-slavery half of the United States seceded from the union, and the nation plunged itself into a brutal civil war.

Dred Scott's tombstone
The war, of course, is another story, but the Dred Scott story ends on a happier note. The Widow Emerson decided to turn Dred, Harriet and their daughters back over to their original owners, the Blow family, soon after the Supreme Court ruling. The Blows then set them free. Unfortunately, Dred died 16 months later of tuberculosis, but his wife and daughters lived through the Civil War that their court case partially inspired.

Daphne and I decided to pay our respects to this brave couple who fought so hard for their freedom, and ventured out to the St. Louis cemetery where they are buried. The inscriptions on their tombstones were beautiful. Harriet's said: "Your plea for equality was raised in obscurity, but in time it became the rallying cry of a people determined to abolish slavery. Yours was a strong seed planted in the pursuit of freedom rising." Dred's read: "In memory of a simple man who wanted to be free."


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Friendly letters, wine and more at the start of a civil war?
Daphne - Bloodshed in Kansas: we're part of the war now, Toto
Neda - Mozart vs. Jay-Z and other reasons people go to war
Daphne - Abraham Lincoln: A log cabin boy wonder!
MAD - Police brutality: when the law is NOT on your side