Who is an American? The Lasting Legacy of the Dred Scott Decision

If Walls Could Talk

One of Cooperstown’s most famous residents, Justice Samuel Nelson, used the Law Office, now at The Farmers’ Museum, when at home in the Village of Cooperstown. Nelson had a long and distinguished legal career, but he is most known for his involvement in the notorious 1857 Dred Scott case—considered by historians and legal scholars to be one of the worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions in American history. Within the Law Office, you can walk in Nelson’s footsteps as he deliberated on a landmark case that ultimately denied an enslaved family’s freedom, legally sanctioned racial inequality and the spread of slavery, and contributed to the transformation of American society. The impact of Dred Scott and the questions it raised—who is an American and is citizenship a requirement for basic constitutional rights—remain with us today.

Samuel Nelson, 1864 Carl Ludwig Brandt, oil on canvas Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York Gift of W.B. Simmonds, N0086.1957  Photograph by Richard Walker.

Half Slave, Half Free

During the years of the Dred Scott case and in the decades prior, Americans fiercely debated whether slavery should be allowed to expand into the nation’s increasing number of western territories.

In 1820, Missouri’s desire to enter the Union as a slave state ignited the issue. At the time, the country’s twenty-two states were evenly divided: half slave and half free. In order to maintain the balance and keep the peace, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, through which Missouri entered as a slave state and Maine as a free state. It also banned slavery north of latitude 36o30’.

As more territories sought entrance to the Union in the 1850s, tensions reached new heights. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the people of Kansas and Nebraska to decide their status as a free or slave state by popular vote, effectively nullifying the ban on slavery above the 36o 30’ parallel. Chief Justice Taney took this one step further in his Dred Scott opinion, declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and denying Congress and the territorial governments the power to prohibit slavery in the territories.

What did political parties stand for in 1857?

Republicans generally:

  • lived in the North
  • wanted a strong, centralized federal government
  • opposed slavery and supported free labor

Democrats generally:

  • lived anywhere in the country, but dominated the South
  • favored states’ rights
  • supported slavery and feared abolition, although northern Democrats largely opposed slavery’s expansion
Reynold’s Political Map of the United States, 1856 Courtesy of Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography.

Who was Dred Scott?

Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, were enslaved people whose owner, Dr. John Emerson, repeatedly moved them between free and slave territories during his service as an army medical officer in the 1830s. Dred first accompanied Dr. Emerson to Fort Armstrong in the free state of Illinois. Later, Dred and Harriet both resided at Fort Snelling in the free Wisconsin Territory (now Minnesota) before they were ultimately returned to the slave state of Missouri. After Dr. Emerson’s death in 1843, his widow, Irene Sanford Emerson, inherited Dred, Harriet, and their two young daughters, Eliza and Lizzie. When Irene Emerson refused Dred’s request to purchase his family’s freedom in 1846, both he and Harriet filed separate legal suits for their freedom (later combined) on the basis of their extended residence in a region where slavery was banned by the Missouri Compromise.

Dred Scott, 1857 Photograph of daguerreotype Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.
Harriet Scott from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857 Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Victim of the Times

“Times are not as they were when the former decisions on this subject were made.”

– Missouri Supreme Court, Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson majority opinion, 1852

Before being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Scotts’ lawsuit spent nearly a decade in a tortuous cycle of wins, losses, and appeals in the lower state and federal courts. The Scotts’ case was strong. Hundreds of enslaved people sued in the Missouri courts prior to Dred Scott, with many winning their freedom due to the 1820s doctrine of “once free, always free.” This principle upheld emancipation for enslaved people taken to live in free territory, even if later returned to slave territory. One such successful case—Rachel v. Walker—was nearly identical to the Scotts’ suit.

Backed by these legal precedents, the Scotts, too, won their seemingly open-and-shut case in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County in 1850. However, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the decision in 1852. In the six years since the Scotts first sued, the debate over slavery’s expansion into the nation’s growing western territories erupted anew, further escalating tensions between North and South. In response, the Missouri Supreme Court cast aside thirty years of precedent and invalidated “once free, always free.” The Scotts became unfortunate victims of the times and a court that allowed the political climate to dictate its decisions.

Irene Sanford Emerson Chaffee, late 19th century Cabinet card Courtesy of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, Springfield, Massachusetts. Irene Emerson (later Chaffee) acted as an absentee defendant for much of the lawsuit against her, content to move to Massachusetts and remarry by 1850, leaving the case to her lawyers and her brother, John F.A. Sanford. Her ardently pro-slavery family and the income she received from hiring out the Scotts likely contributed to her enduring refusal to grant the Scotts emancipation.

Life in Limbo

The Scott family lived in uncertainty for eleven years while awaiting a conclusion to their excruciating legal odyssey and a final decision on their fate. Their owner, Irene Emerson, moved to Massachusetts early in the case, leaving the Scotts in the custody of the St. Louis county sheriff, who hired them out as laborers and held their collected wages, pending the outcome of the trial.

In daring to sue for their freedom, Dred and Harriet also risked retribution from Irene Emerson and other defenders of slavery. Despite a standard court order issued to protect the Scotts from retaliation or removal from St. Louis during the suit, the threat of physical abuse or of being kidnapped and sold further south remained. In the later years of the case, Dred and Harriet sent their daughters into hiding.

Through courage and perseverance, the Scotts survived, aided by allies—among them abolitionists, lawyers, and the children of Dred’s former owner—who emotionally and financially supported the family.

Eliza and Lizzie Scott from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857 Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Supreme Court Decides

It belongs to the sovereign State of Missouri to determine by her laws the question of slavery within her jurisdiction, subject only to such limitations as may be found in the Federal Constitution.”

– Samuel Nelson, Dred Scott v. Sandford concurring opinion, 1857

By the time the Scotts’ case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it had become intertwined with the nationally divisive topics of African American citizenship and slavery in the western territories. On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the Court’s 7-2 decision against the Scotts in an inflammatory opinion that not only denied the Scotts their freedom, but declared the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery in the territories unconstitutional. It also deemed African Americans could never be U.S. citizens, and thus had no constitutional rights, including suit in federal court. Taney went so far as to claim the framers of the Constitution never intended African Americans to be citizens.

Nelson voted with the majority but gave different reasoning in his separate opinion. A northern Democrat with a reputation for shunning partisan conflict, Nelson avoided the controversial questions. He narrowly reasoned that state law was “supreme over the subject of slavery” and therefore it was “the duty of Federal courts to follow it,” even though this left the Scotts at the mercy of the Missouri Supreme Court’s politically biased decision.

Supreme Court Justices of the United States, ca. 1864-1867 Alexander Gardner, photograph Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York Gift of Mrs. Robert Jackson, N0236.1947. Nelson is fourth from the right in this first ever group photograph of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Roger Taney, ca. 1855-1865 Matthew Brady, Carte de Visite Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, NN0547(13).

A Bittersweet End

In the intervening years of the case, Irene Emerson married Dr. Calvin Clifford Chaffee, a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts and an outspoken abolitionist. He learned his wife owned the most famous enslaved people in the nation only a month before the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Embarrassed and facing public ridicule, Chaffee transferred the Scotts to Dred’s former owners, the Blow family, after the verdict. Taylor Blow, who grew up around Dred and helped support the family during their lawsuit, freed the Scotts on May 26, 1857. However, Irene Emerson Chaffee insisted on claiming the Scotts’ eleven years of wages held by the St. Louis county sheriff.

Finally free, Dred served as a hotel porter, while Harriet worked as a laundress. Dred enjoyed just over a year of his hard-won freedom before dying of tuberculosis on September 17, 1858. Harriet lived to see the end of the Civil War and the subsequent passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which granted African Americans freedom, citizenship, and voting rights. Most importantly, Harriet witnessed her daughters live out free lives until her death on June 17, 1876.

Dr. Calvin Clifford Chaffee, 1859 Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Statue of Dred and Harriet Scott outside St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, where the couple’s lawsuit began.


“This very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the downfall and complete overthrow of the whole slave system.”

– Frederick Douglass, speech to the American Abolition Society on the Dred Scott decision, May 14, 1857

Instead of resolving the incendiary issues plaguing the nation, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision exacerbated the division between the North and South. Abolitionists openly denounced the verdict, including Frederick Douglass, who accurately predicted it would sow the seeds of slavery’s destruction.

The ruling also failed to destabilize the Republican Party, as the Court’s southern majority had hoped. Dred Scott became a central issue in the political debates that brought Republican Abraham Lincoln to prominence. It also alienated northern Democrats by sanctioning slavery’s expansion in the western territories. Republicans seized on fears that slavery would soon be permitted throughout the nation. Four years after Dred Scott, the decision’s fallout helped catapult Lincoln to the presidency, lighting the fuse of the Civil War.

The 13th and 14th Amendments’ subsequent abolition of slavery and guarantee of African American citizenship reversed the Dred Scott ruling. However, this did not bring an end to African Americans’ fight for equality. From the convict leasing of the post-Civil War era to Jim Crow laws to today’s racial justice issues, the struggle is far from over. Today, Black Lives Matter and other activists carry the Scotts’ courageous and persistent spirit as they strive to realize the full citizenship that the Dred Scott decision denied.

Engraving from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, 1845 Fenimore Art Museum Research Library, Cooperstown, New York, 326.92 D737
Black Lives Matter demonstrators march in front of the Dred and Harriet Scott statue in St. Louis during a protest of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

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