March 6, 2023

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision

March 6, 1857. In the landmark case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the US Supreme Court rules that African Americans, free or enslaved, are not entitled to citizenship.


Cold Open

It’s October 1838 in Missouri.

A steamboat chugs north up the Mississippi River. In a secluded corner below deck… a young enslaved woman is in the final throes of labor. Here, in the sweltering heat of the boat’s hull, 23-year-old Harriet Scott grips the sides of the upturned crates serving as her bed and tries to concentrate on her breathing.

A group of older women huddle around Harriet’s bedside, dabbing her forehead with wet rags and offering words of encouragement over the roar of the boat's furnace. Somebody whispers in Harriet’s ear: “Not far now...” But the words don’t bring Harriet any relief.

For the last few days, Harriet has been trying desperately to delaygiving birth. She doesn’t want her first child to be born here in Missouri - a state where slavery is legal. It is much easier for the children of slaves to acquire their freedom if they are born and registered in free states and Harriet wants to wait until they reach the Iowa Territory, where slavery is prohibited, before introducing her child to the world.

But with each second that passes, the pain is becoming increasingly difficult to bear. Still, just when Harriet is beginning to think she can’t delay any longer… Harriet’s husband rushes to her side. 38-year-old Dred Scott kneels down and takes his wife's hand as he delivers the news she’s been waiting for: the boat has just entered the Iowa Territory. Flooded with relief, Harriet takes a deep breath and gives in to the natural rhythms of giving birth. 

When the child, bundled in coarse blankets, is handed to Harriet, she looks over at her husband Dred with an exhausted smile. Their baby daughter was born free.

Despite being born in the Iowa territory, young Eliza Scott will spend her childhood living with her parents in bondage. Over the next eight years, Dred, Harriet, and Eliza will continue to live and work under the ownership of military surgeon Dr. John Emerson. As he is posted to different army barracks around the country, the Scotts will go too, traveling first to Louisiana, then Wisconsin, before ultimately settling in St. Louis, Missouri.

But in 1846, the Scotts will take their fortunes into their own hands when they sue for their freedom. The case will drag on for eleven years, and eventually appear in front of the Supreme Court, where a judge will make a fateful decision that will change both the future of the Scotts and the entire nation on March 6th, 1857.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is March 6th, 1857: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision.

Act One: Freedom for Sale

It’s 1846 on a farm outside St. Louis, Missouri; eleven years before the Dred Scott case will be heard before the Supreme Court.

Dred Scott, now 46 years old, is chopping logs for firewood, when the sharp clatter of hoofbeats makes him look up from his work. Dred watches as Mrs. Irene Emerson, his owner, steps down from the carriage and disappears inside the farmhouse. After taking a moment to compose his thoughts, Dred drops his ax and walks toward the porch.

At the time of their first daughter’s birth eight years ago, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet lived with their owner, Dr. John Emerson, at a military base in Wisconsin. But two years later, John was transferred to Florida. As John took up the new post, the Scotts went to live in St. Louis, Missouri, at the home of the doctor’s wife, Irene.

For Dred and his family, this wasn’t simply a move from one state to another; it represented a leap between two political and ideological spheres. They were going from a territory in which slavery is prohibited, to a state in which the practice is legaland widespread. Dred and Harriet were both born enslaved; they have never known anything but bondage. But the same is not true of their daughter, Eliza.

She was born on a steamboat as it sailed through Iowa, another free territory. And that means Eliza was born free, and when she’s old enough to leave the care of her parents, she is legally entitled to claim her emancipation. But Eliza has just only turned eight - the age at which many African American children are sold into slavery. Her pending free status won't deter the slave traders here in St. Louis.

So desperate to safeguard Eliza’s future, and that of their younger daughter, Lizzy, Dred and Harriet want to leave Missouri and return to the North. But to do so, they will have to try to purchase their freedom. For several years now, the Scotts have been squirreling away what little extra money they could earn by working on Sundays. And in total, they have managed to save 300 dollars - the equivalent of $9,000 today. 

But as Dred approaches the farmhouse, his mind is plagued by doubt. Dr. John Emerson died three years ago, leaving all his property - including his slaves - to his wife Irene. Irene is a waspish and hard-hearted woman who treats her slaves with contempt. Dred has never received any kindness from her, and he doubts she will be receptive to his offer. But he knows he has to try; his children’s future depends on it.

So Dred straightens his work clothes then knocks on the door. Receiving no answer, he pushes it open and hesitantly steps inside the dimly lit entrance. He calls out: “Mrs. Emerson?” and a few moments later, a gray-haired middle-aged woman emerges from a door at the end of the hall, her thin lips pursed with displeasure.

She tells Dred to stop all that banging and hollering. Then she asks why he’s not outside, working in the field. Dred opens his mouth - but no words come out. He’s been picturing this moment for years, rehearsing the script over and over with Harriet. But now that the moment has arrived, his mind has gone blank.

But just when Irene is about to turn away, Dred’s words come spilling out in a flurry. By the time he’s finished, Irene has turned crimson with rage. In a low voice, she tells Dred that she is shocked by his audacity. How dare he threaten to abandon her like this? She refuses to sell him his freedom and tells him to get back to work.

Later that night, Dred breaks the bad news to Harriet - all their scrimping and saving has been for nothing; Irene Emerson will never sell them their freedom. Harriet walks to the window and looks into the gathering darkness. After a while, she says: “What if we take her to court?”

Dred just stares at his wife asking what grounds they have to sue Irene Emerson. When Harriet turns around, there is a fire ablaze in her eyes. She tells Dred that she has overheard people at church talking about slaves filing freedom suits against their owners. Apparently, if an owner takes their slave to live in a state where slavery is outlawed, then that slave becomesfree - and cannot be re-enslaved upon returning to the South. Both Dred and Harriet have lived in Wisconsin - a free territory. And that means their case might stand a chance.

Harriet will seek advice from the pastor at the local church, Reverend John R. Anderson. Reverend Anderson, himself a former slave turned abolitionist, will listen to the Scotts’ story, and after determining that they do indeed have a strong case, he will help the couple find a lawyer, and set them on the path to emancipation.

Act Two: Once Free, Always Free

It’s 1846 inside the Central Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri; ten years before the Supreme Court will reach a final decision in Dred Scott’s case.

Harriet Scott sits in a congregation of mostly other enslaved African Americans. While her fellow churchgoers nod along to the sermon, Harriet nervously plucks at a loose thread on the cuff of her dress. Her mind is elsewhere, and she struggles to concentrate on the pastor.

After the service, as the other congregants file out of the church, Harriet remains seated. Eventually, she stands and approaches Reverend John Anderson. The kindly pastor smiles and asks Harriet what he can do for her. Harriet explains that she and her husband wish to file a freedom lawsuit against their owner.

The reverend’s expression suddenly becomes very serious. He ushers Harriet to one side and listens carefully as she explains her and her husband Dred’s situation: how they’re currently owned by the widow of their former master, with whom they spent several years living in Wisconsin, a free territory, before coming to live in St. Louis.

Reverend Anderson considers this for a moment. Then he informs Harriet of a legal precedent here in Missouri, established in the 1820s after a slave successfully filed a freedom suit against their owner. Like Harriet and Dred, the plaintiff in that case was a slave whose owner had taken them to live across state lines in a freeterritory, before returning to Missouri. The Supreme Court of Missouri ruled in favor of that plaintiff, and the resulting doctrine became known as “once free, always free.” Since then, there have been dozens of freedom suits successfully brought against slave owners. There’s no reason why the Scotts shouldn’t receive the same treatment.

So Reverend Anderson introduces Harriet and Dred to Francis Murdoch, a local attorney known for fighting relentlessly on behalf of slaves seeking emancipation. Francis, a stern-looking man with piercing blue eyes, reassures the Scotts that he has successfully filed countless freedom suits, ones far more complex and contentious than theirs.

So a few weeks later, Dred and Harriet follow Francis up the steps of the county courthouse. Acting on their lawyer’s advice, the Scotts are filing separate suits against Irene Emerson. Marriage between enslaved people is not legally recognized, so in order for both to gain their freedom, Harriet and Dred need to make their appeals not as a couple, but as individuals. After filing their petitions, the Scotts return to Irene Emerson’s farm, optimistic that their cases will be wrapped up swiftly.

But that doesn't happen. Due to an overcrowded docket, it takes more than a year for Dred’s case to go to trial. In June 1847, he finally appears before a judge. But by now, Francis Murdoch has left St. Louis and the Scotts are being represented by a different lawyer named Samuel Bay. Samuel is younger and less experienced than his predecessor - though no less determined to deliver Dred and Harriet their freedom.

So on a hot summer’s afternoon, Samuel stands to address the jury.

To win this case, Samuel needs to prove that Dred previously lived in a free territory and that he is currently owned by Irene Emerson. Witness testimony easily confirms that Dred spent several years living in Wisconsin. But when Samuel calls the witness to the second point, things start to go wrong. This witness, a local landowner, asserts that he hired Dred from Irene Emerson for a few days’ work - thus confirming that Irene is Dred’s enslaver. But upon cross-examination, the landowner admits that it was his wifewho hired Dred on his behalf. Irene’s attorney dismisses the testimony as mere hearsay, and the judge ultimately sides with the defense.

Since Dred Scott’s freedom is denied on the basis of a technicality, Samuel applies for a re-trial. Meanwhile, Harriet’s case gets no further. And due to the fact that both appeals are identical in nature, Harriet and Dred decide to combine their cases and pursue their freedom as joint plaintiffs with a re-trial set for January 1850.

But in the meantime, Irene Emerson asks the local sheriff’s department to take the Scott family into custody, permitting the authorities to hire them out at will. For the next two years, Dred, Harriet, and their young daughters are forced to split their time between a jail cell and the plantations of whatever local landowner the sheriff leases them to. 

The hardships continue until once again, the Scotts’ are in a courtroom. Their lawyer presents all the facts, and after a brief deliberation, the jury ultimately sides with Dred and Harriet. At the bang of the judge’s gavel, the Scotts celebrate their first-ever taste of freedom.

But it won't last. Irene Emerson will appeal to overturn the verdict, and in 1852, a Missouri Supreme Court judge will reverse the legal precedent of “once free, always free,” declaring Dred and Harriet Scott slaves once again. This injustice will catch the nation’s attention. And as the Scotts appeal for anotherre-trial, the case will assume broader political implications for a country already bitterly divided over the issues of slavery and state sovereignty. And when the Scotts’ fight for freedom is elevated from the judiciary of Missouri to the hallowed halls of the United States Supreme Court, it will bring far-reaching consequences.

Act Three: Dred Scott vs Sanford

It’s March 6th, 1857 in Washington D.C.

Inside the US Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roger Taney stands to deliver the final ruling in Harriet and Dred Scott’s long, tortuous attempt to gain their freedom. Taney sighs wearily as he scans the verdict over which he and his fellow Justices have spent so many weeks deliberating…

After the Missouri courts overturned the 1850 ruling that granted the Scotts their freedom, the couple appealed for an immediate re-trial. But because Irene had moved to Massachusetts, their lawyer had to file that petition against the owner of Irene’s estate - her brother, John Sanford. Sanford lives in New York and is not subject to suit in the state of Missouri. So, the Scotts had to take their appeal to a federal level. Last year, the case finally reached the US Supreme Court.

For Chief Justice Roger Taney, an ardent supporter of states’ rights, this case is just another example of Northern aggression against the institution of slavery. Taney maintains that the Constitution makes no allowances for the prohibition of slavery in the territories. Therefore, the prosecution’s whole argument - that Dred Scott and his wife legally gained their freedom while living in the Wisconsin Territory - is wrong-headed and unconstitutional.

But many of the other Justices disagree with Taney’s position. So he and his southern colleagues expanded their argument by claiming that enslaved black people had never enjoyed the rights of a citizen under the Constitution. And if slaves cannot be citizens, they cannot file lawsuits in a court. And therefore, the Supreme Court should dismiss the case because they have no jurisdiction.

Holding the verdict in his hand, the eighty-year-old Chief Justice clears his throat and reads it to the courthouse, declaring that Black people have "always been regarded as beings of an inferior order to the white race” and therefore have “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” Taney concludes his statement by reasserting the status of Harriet and Dred Scott as slaves.

The Supreme Court ruling will make headlines across the country, sparking outrage among abolitionists and further fracturing the state of the union between North and South. As for Dred and Harriet Scott, they will return to St. Louis as celebrities - with one newspaper calling Dred: “the best-known black person in the world.” Despite the disappointment of the Supreme Court’s verdict, the Scotts willsoon gain their freedom. Just months after Taney’s ruling, the Scotts will be purchased from Irene by the Blow family, who originally sold Dred to the Emersons in the first place. The Blows will then emancipate Dred, Harriet, and their daughters, who will live out the rest of their lives in freedom - an outcome few could have predicted following the Supreme Court’s verdict in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which was made on this day, March 6th, 1857.


Next on History Daily. March 7th, 1850. US Senator Daniel Webster delivers a famous speech endorsing the 1850 Compromise hoping to calm the nation’s growing conflict over slavery.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib. 

Sound design by Mollie Baack. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.