The Road to Civil War: the Dred Scott Decision

By Jon Handy

The compromise of 1850 was the beginning of the end for the Whig party and split it down the middle between the northern Whigs (anti-slavery) and the southern Whigs (pro-slavery). The Whig Party had experienced bitter factionalism throughout its existence and paled in party loyalty when contrasted with the strong party discipline of the Democratic party organization. The North was distraught over the compromise that was reached in Congress to continue slavery and the Whigs split into two disparate factions. The Whigs in the South joined the short-lived American party, and the Whigs of the North started a new anti-slave party which they called the Republican party.  Abraham Lincoln returned to his legal practice in Illinois where this new party, which saw “the expansion of slavery as a great evil,” was being organized. They held their first convention in 1854, and by 1858 became the predominant party in nearly all the northern states. Their slogan was “free labor, free land, free men.”  “Free labor” referred to their opposition to slave labor. “Free land” implied their opposition to a plantation system where the rich could buy up all the good farmland and work it with slaves. And “Free men” implied that every citizen of our country is indeed free and deserving of equality.  Lincoln won the party’s nomination in 1860, and was elected president in the following election that year. 

Dred Scott, ca. 1857. (Image: Wikipedia)

While all this was happening, Dred Scott was petitioning the courts in St Louis for freedom. Scott was a slave of the Peter Blow family. After the Blows moved to St. Louis, Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon who traveled to many posts in Illinois and Wisconsin.  Scott stayed with the doctor, assisting him during his travels to these slave-free states.  Dred was married at this time to his wife, Harriet, and they had two children who also traveled with them.

Upon returning to St. Louis, Dred Scott became dissatisfied when Dr. Emerson died, and Mrs. Emerson began hiring out Scott and his family to neighbors and friends.  Scott enlisted the help of his minister and the Blow family in filing a petition with the St. Louis courts for his freedom. Scott lost the first trial on presentation of hearsay evidence, but was allowed to refile their suit in the St. Louis Circuit Court.  This jury found that Dred Scott and his family should be free.  Mrs. Emerson appealed the case to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which reversed the ruling in 1852 and returned the Scott family to slavery. This reversal prompted Scott to appeal his case to the US Supreme Court. [1]

Seven of the nine U.S. Supreme Court judges were slave owners themselves. They ruled that not only was Dred Scott a slave but, as a slave, he had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. The court also ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the northern territories, was unconstitutional. Therefore, even though Scott lived in northern territories, he had not earned his freedom.

The abolitionists and Republicans were enraged by this decision and feared that this case would set a precedent for all slaves and that slavery would spread unchecked. Dred Scott was later returned to the Blow Family when Mrs. Emerson remarried and the Blow Family gave them their freedom in 1857. Dred Scott died of tuberculosis just a year later and was buried in St. Louis never knowing what a hornets’ nest he had whacked.

On September 17, 1862 the Confederate Army of North Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee, attacked the North at Antietam, Maryland in Washington County. [2] President Lincoln offered the remaining Southern States the opportunity to rejoin the North. When they unanimously rejected his offer he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and the war was on – the bloodiest battle ever on American soil.

[1] Dred Scott v Sandford

[2] The opening battle of the Civil War was the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861. (List of Battles of the Civil War)

See Also:

Political Realignment in the 1850s (Cliffs Notes)

Secretary of State of Missouri, Missouri Digital Heritage: The Dred Scott Case

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