Since the first migration of settlers began, America has always boasted itself` as the land of the free, the home of the brave, and a haven for all; however, when one peers deeper into the eloquently written half promises of freedom laid out in the Declaration of Independence, the reality is far from what is portrayed. From manifest destiny to slavery, discrimination has been engraved in the American way of life from the beginning.
Over the centuries, there have been many instances where America has provided onlookers a glimpse of its true beliefs on issues such as race, but none more assertive than that of the court case Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott was a slave who once belonged the family of Peter Blow, but was later sold to the army doctor John Emerson. During his time enslaved by Dr. Emerson, Scott lived in Illinois and Wisconsin, both free states.
After the death of Dr. Emerson, Scott, along with his wife, tried to buy his freedom from Dr. Emerson’s widow; however, when she refused, Scott decided to sue for his freedom on the basis that he had lived in two free states for an extended period of time. In 1847, Scott went to trial, but lost because he could not prove that he and his wife were owned by Mrs. Emerson. The Missouri Supreme Court decided to conduct a retrial and in 1850 the circuit court decided that Scott and his family were free. In 1852 however, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the earlier decision of the circuit court.
After this, Scott sought out a trial in a federal court, which upheld the previous decision made by the Missouri Supreme Court (Pollack). Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Emerson gave Scott to her brother John Sanford. Subsequently, with no other alternative left, Scott decided to take his case to the highest court of the land in 1856, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court came back with a majority decision on march 1857. Armed with a 7-2 majority, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the opinion of the court, stating that Scott could not sue for his freedom because as a slave he had none of rights granted to a citizen.
This decision stunned many and would go down as one of the most influential court cases in history because it would subsequently add to the many precipitating factors that would lead to the civil war by: declaring that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, galvanizing abolitionists everywhere around the fear of the expansion of slavery, and disrupting the already fragile status of slaves in America. One of the reasons the case of Dred Scott helped move the country closer to civil war is because aside from claiming Scott was not free, it also proclaimed that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional.
Removal of the Missouri Compromise upset a decision that took place years before the case even appeared before the Supreme Court, when the United States acquired a mass of land west of the Mississippi River from France in 1803 during the Jeffersonian administration. Even though the majority of Americans believed that acquiring land was crucial to securing America’s position on the world stage, the topic of slavery in these states was still a heavily debated subject. During this time the United States had 22 states, 11 of which were free and 11 of which were slave. These states preserved a delicate balance of power in the Senate.
In 1817, when Missouri requested admission into the union, this balance was threatened. Congress, in 1819, contemplated legislation that would allow Missouri to construct its own state constitution, which led James Tallmadge, a representative of New York, to add a stipulation that would ban slavery in the new state to the legislation. The amendment passed in the house, which was controlled by northern representatives, but failed to pass in the senate which was equally divided between northern and southern states. The senate adjourned without having resolved the issue.
The issue of slavery in the newly acquire land led to heated debates among the pro-slavery sector of congress and the abolitionists. To preserve this balance, Henry Clay proposed a compromise to pacify each side known as the Missouri Compromise. The compromise prohibited slavery 36 degrees north with the exception of Missouri. The compromise was enough to satiate both sides until the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott used the compromise to his advantage by claiming that because he lived for an extended period of time in a state proclaimed free by the Missouri Compromise, he was in fact a free man.
However, not only did Scott lose his case, but the courts decided that the Missouri Compromise, which had been upheld for decades, was unconstitutional because congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in newly acquired territories. Due to this decision, the compromise, which had for years been able to delay the slavery argument, was overturned. This decision further worsening the already divisive topic of slavery and polarized the American people on the topic, which led to the quickening of the arrival of the civil war. Secondly, the Dred Scott case further led to the degradation of already unstable rights given to slaves.
Over the years, before the Dred Scott decision, a slave had a few loosely held constitutional rights depending on their state of residence. In some states “[laws] prohibited the forced breakup of slave families and allowed slaves to legally marry. By the 1790s, slaves were negotiating with their owners about matters like their sale and how they might become free” (Pollak_ _ _). Other laws protecting the rights of slaves included, “a law that guaranteed blacks a jury trial if charged with capital crimes, the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1799, and another in 1817 mandated the liberation of most slaves in New York by 1827” (Pollak_ _ _).
These rights, although rarely enforced, could be used to a slave’s advantage to give them protection and standing as a human being. Specifically, “a Missouri statute that allowed anyone held wrongfully in slavery to sue for their freedom” (Zee). The court decision, or more specifically, “Chief Justice Taney [,] ruled that Dred Scott had no right to bring a lawsuit in the federal court because he was not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution. According to Taney, not only slaves but also free black could never be a part of the American political community” (Pollack).
With the Supreme Court ruling that Dred Scott had no right to sue, it ultimately destroyed what little rights that slaves had. The cruel treatment of slaves made many, not just abolitionists wary of the idea of slavery leading to the prominence of the Republican party as well as a Lincoln, a young Republican lawyer, who had already voiced his disgust with the outcome of the court case stating, “what Dred Scott’s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott, in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or one thousand slaves, in Illinois, or in any other free state” (Dyer).
Many southerners felt was Lincoln was too anti-slavery that they had no choice but to succeed. This finally led to the civil war. Finally, the Dred Scott v. Sanford court decision further galvanized abolitionists around the notion of trying to end the peculiar institution of slavery. Before the case, many northerners were acquiescent with the idea of slavery as long as it remained contained in the south; however, after the court decided in the case against the sovereignty of free soil, the north saw this as a blatant attempt to expand slavery into the western territories.
They believed that with no congress to check the spread of slavery, once slavery spread into the western territories it could easily find its way into the free states. This concept managed to insight fear into the usually complacent northern abolitionists and sprung them into action. While the south hailed the decision as a triumph for southern rights, many abolitionists believed that this decision was “like a declaration of war on all of the ideals and freedoms awarded them by their states and territories, which stood opposed to the institution of slavery” (Oswald).
The north quickly voiced their revulsion of the Supreme Courts actions in articles denouncing the court for their decision. One such article in New York Daily Tribune, even went on to accuse the Supreme Court as being corrupt and working in favor of the interests of slaveholding southerners. The articles author then went on to state that it should be “regarded, throughout the Free States and wherever the pulse of Liberty beats, only as the votes of five slaveholders and two doughfaces upon a question where their opinion was not asked, and where their votes would not count” (Qtd. n Oswald).
This broadcasting of opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in northern newspapers also led to a surge in northern abolitionist support for the Republican party’s platform, which held antislavery ideologies and opposed the expansion of slavery. Consequently, the shift in northern ideology informed southern states that the northern abolitionists would no longer be passive on the issue of slavery, thus leading a large number of slaveholding southerners to embrace the idea of southern succession.
The topic of slavery never failed to produced strong emotions between the already polarized Northern and Southern states. These strong feelings had long been ignored by many politicians who chose to turn a blind eye to the problem. This neglect to the issue of slavery did nothing to quall the American people and these differences in ideologies reached its breaking point, signaling the beginning of the Civil War.
The civil war, arguably one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history, could be traced back to many causes and one such source would be that of the Supreme Court Decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford Case. The Dred Scott decision added fuel to the already scorching flame because of the frenzy it provoked in both sides. This case helped cause the civil war by: declaring that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, galvanizing abolitionists everywhere around the fear of the expansion of slavery, and disrupting the already fragile status of slaves in America.