Black Pawn On A Field Of Peril

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Dred Scott was nobody in particular. A slave born of slave parents, unable to read or write, physically frail, he was a man without energy, who lor a full decade drifted about in St. Louis as an errand boy and general odd-jobs factotum, an unremarkable bondsman on whom the burden of servitude rested rather lightly. Nobody directly concerned with him wanted him as a slave. As a chattel he was a liability rather than an asset, and in any case his various owners seem to have been antislavery people. Yet his unsuccessful legal battle to become free left an enduring shadow on the history of the United States and was an important factor in the coming of the Civil War.

He is remembered because in March, 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford . (That last name, by the way, was misspelled and should be Sanford: one minor mistake in a case clouded by larger errors.) The Chief Justice asserted that Scott and all men like him neither were nor ever could be citizens. This opinion was upset a few years later by marching armies, at the cost of much bloodshed, but the reversal came too late to be of any help to Dred Scott because he died before the Civil War began.

It is hard to feel that Scott was the prime mover in this momentous case that shook the entire nation. He unquestionably wanted very much to be free, and as his struggle progressed he appears to have enjoyed the backhanded sort of fame which it brought to him, but his part was chiefly that of a pawn. He was a counter played in a tense and ominous game, and the fact that this particular counter was played just when and as it was played was one of the reasons why the game at last broke up in a furious fight. Yet the whole of it touched Scott himself only indirectly.

Dred Scott was born in Southampton County, Virginia, somewhere around 1795, the property of a man named Peter Blow. In 1827, Blow moved to St. Louis, taking his family and his chattels with him. Four years later Peter Blow died, and Scott became the property of Blow’s daughter Elizabeth, who in 1833 sold him to Dr. John Emerson, an army surgeon. In 1834 Dr. Emerson was transferred to duty at Rock Island, Illinois, and some time after that he was transferred again to Fort Snelling, which lay farther up the Mississippi River in what was then Wisconsin Territory. Dr. Emerson took Scott with him as a body servant during all of this time, so that for approximately five years Scott lived on free soil. At the end of 1838 Dr. Emerson returned to St. Louis, taking Scott along, and soon after this Dr. Emerson died, leaving Scott to his widow, Mrs. Irene Sanford Emerson.

For some time Mrs. Emerson did what many slaveowners did in those days—hired her chattel out to various families who needed servants. Then, in the mid-i84o’s, she moved to New York, and she did not take Dred Scott with her. Instead she left him in St. Louis in the charge of the two sons of Scott’s original owner, Henry and Taylor Blow, ft was at about this time that the seeds of what was to become one of America’s most famous court cases were planted.

Henry Blow was then in his thirties, a lawyer and businessman of some wealth and prominence. He was head of a railroad, active in developing lead-mining properties in southwestern Missouri; active also in the Whig party, beginning to be known as an opponent of the extension of slavery. (A few years later Henry Blow helped organize the Free Soil movement in Missouri, and eventually he became a Republican.) As an antislavery man, Blow wanted Scott freed, and in 1846 he helped finance a suit in the Missouri courts to have Scott declared free. Scott himself appears to have been a little hazy as to what this was all about, but he willingly signed his mark to the necessary papers, and the lawsuit was on.

At this point it becomes obvious that the real point to this proceeding was not so much to win freedom for Scott personally as to win a legal point in the broad fight against slavery as an institution. Mrs. Emerson obviously did not want to retain Scott as her slave, and she apparently was no believer in slavery—a few years later she became the wife of Calvin Clifford Chaffee, a radical antislavery congressman from Massachusetts. When she moved to New York she could easily have executed papers of manumission to give Scott his freedom. She did not do that; instead, she left him with the Blows, and when his lawsuit began she was technically the defendant—the case was listed formally as “Scott, a Man of Color, v. Emerson.” The case is just a little mysterious, but it seems clear that what everyone wanted was a definite ruling about the status of a slave whose master took him into free territory.

This was beginning to be an important point. The western country was opening up for settlement, and the law said that north of the Missouri Compromise line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes, the new territory was free soil. Exactly what would happen if a slaveowner took his slaves with him when he moved into such territory?

Lawyers for Dred Scott argued that his five-year sojourn on tree soil had ended his bondage and that on his return to Missouri the state court should make formal declaration of his freedom. The lower court rided in Scott’s favor, but an appeal was taken—what everybody wanted, obviously, was a high-level finding that would stand as some sort of landmark—and the state supreme court eventually reversed the lower court, holding that Missouri law still applied and that Scott, as a resident of Missouri, must remain a slave.