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Black Pawn On A Field Of Peril
DRED SCOTT v. SANFORD
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
The law’s delays were as notorious then as they are now, and the case dragged on for six years; the ruling of the state supreme court was not handed down until 1852. During this time Scott remained under the nominal control of the county sheriff, who hired him out here and there for five dollars a month. Scott was in limbo, everybody’s slave and nobody’s slave; if he had any thoughts about this interminable process of determining his future, they were never recorded.
Meanwhile, things had been happening—not to Scott, but to the country that countenanced the institution that held him in slavery. The Mexican War had been fought and won, and the United States came into possession of a vast new area running all the way to the golden shores of California, one of the immediate results being that the whole slavery controversy became a dominant issue in national politics. Until now there had been a slightly unstable equilibrium, with the Missouri Compromise decreeing that new territories created lrom Louisiana Purchase lands lying north of the line that marked the southern boundary of Missouri should be free soil. This equilibrium vanished when the immense acquisitions of the Mexican War made it obvious that sooner or later many new states would be created, and the issue was pointed up when Congressman David Wilmot of Pennsylvania unsuccessfully tried to get Congress to pass a law providing that slavery be excluded from all the land that had been taken from Mexico. The question of slavery in the territories, by the early 1850's, had become the great, engrossing question in American politics.
It became important because the way this issue was settled would determine whether the institution of slavery could continue to expand or must be limited to the areas where it already existed. On the surface, it might seem to make very little difference to a planter in Alabama or a farmer in Ohio whether slaves could or could not be held in some such faraway place as New Mexico; actually, the future of slavery itself was at stake, and everybody knew it.
The Compromise of 1850 brought a temporary easing of the tension. Under this arrangement, California came in as a free state, a stronger fugitive slave law was enacted, and it was agreed that when new territories were organi/ed out of the empty lands that had been taken from Mexico the inhabitants of those territories would themselves decide whether slavery was to be permitted or prohibited. This was the famous principle of popular sovereignty; it looked like a fair, democratic way to settle things, and for a short time the nation relaxed.
It did not relax very long. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois in 1854 brought in his Kansas-Nebraska Act, a measure to organize the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This area had been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and it lay north of the Missouri Compromise line of 36 degrees, 30 minutes, and hence these territories must be free soil. But Douglas was a Democrat, in a Democratic Congress, and the Democratic party was largely dominated by southerners, who were most unlikely to consent to the creation of two new free territories which would presently become free states. So Douglas, a firm believer in the principle of popular sovereignty, decided to extend that principle to Kansas and Nebraska. His act, which passed Congress after most heated debate, wiped out the Missouri Compromise line and provided that the settlers of Kansas and Nebraska could say whether slavery might exist there. Meanwhile, slaveowners and their chattels were free to move in.
When he introduced this bill Douglas commented that it would “raise [a] hell of a storm.” He was entirely right. It did; and the slavery controversy returned to the center of the stage, never to leave it until the papers were signed at Appomattox Courthouse.
Of all of this Dred Scott knew nothing. He continued to shift back and forth on the little jobs for which he was now and then farmed out, totally unaware of the new currents that were swirling about him. But lie suddenly became an important person because of that old lawsuit. Missouri slaveowners were moving into Kansas, taking their slaves with them; antislavery people from the North were also moving in, taking their antislavery convictions with them; and there were bitter clashes, with bloodshed and gunfire to focus national attention on the situation. The old question about the status of a slave whose owner took him into an area which the old Missouri Compromise called free soil had become a matter of vast consequence.
It was time, in other words, to get a ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States. The original lawsuit was revived. Mrs. Emerson transferred title to Scott to her brother, John F. A. Sanford of New York, and in 1854 the case, now known as Dred Scott T. Sandford , got on the docket in the federal circuit court for Missouri.
It was a bit complicated. If Scott was to sue Sanford in a federal court he had to show that he was a citizen of Missouri—that is, a federal case had to involve an action between citizens of different states. Sanlord’s lawyers argued that as a Negro slave Scott was not a citizen of Missouri and that the federal court therefore lacked jurisdiction. The circuit court eventually ruled that way, and Scott’s lawyers took the case to the Supreme Court on a writ of error. In 1856 the Supreme Court heard the arguments.