The Trials

Dred Scott Case Trials

The Dred Scott case was first brought to trial in 1847 in the first floor, west wing courtroom of St. Louis' Old Courthouse. The Scotts lost the first trial because hearsay evidence was presented, but they were granted the right by the judge to a second trial. In the second trial, held in the same courtroom in 1850, a jury heard the evidence and decided that Dred Scott and his family should be free. Slaves were valuable property, and Mrs. Emerson did not want to lose the Scotts, so she appealed her case to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which in 1852 reversed the ruling made at the Old Courthouse, stating that "times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made." The slavery issue was becoming more divisive nationwide, and provided the court with political reasons to return Dred Scott to slavery. The court was saying that Missouri law allowed slavery, and it would uphold the rights of slave-owners in the state at all costs.

Dred Scott was not ready to give up in his fight for freedom for himself and his family, however. With the help of a new team of lawyers who hated slavery, Dred Scott filed suit in St. Louis Federal Court in 1854 against John F.A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother and executor of the Emerson estate. Since Sanford resided in New York, the case was taken to the Federal courts due to diversity of residence. The suit was heard not in the Old Courthouse but in the Papin Building, near the area where the north leg of the Gateway Arch stands today. The case was decided in favor of Sanford, but Dred Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case. Seven of the nine justices agreed that Dred Scott should remain a slave, but Taney did not stop there. He also ruled that as a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. In addition, he declared that Scott had never been free, due to the fact that slaves were personal property; thus the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, and the Federal Government had no right to prohibit slavery in the new territories. The court appeared to be sanctioning slavery under the terms of the Constitution itself, and saying that slavery could not be outlawed or restricted within the United States. The American public reacted very strongly to the Dred Scott Decision. Antislavery groups feared that slavery would spread unchecked. The new Republican Party, founded in 1854 to prohibit the spread of slavery, renewed their fight to gain control of Congress and the courts. Their well-planned political campaign of 1860, coupled with divisive issues that split the Democratic Party, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States and South Carolina's secession from the Union. The Dred Scott Decision moved the country to the brink of Civil War.

Ironically, Irene Emerson was remarried in 1850 to Calvin C. Chaffee, a northern congressman opposed to slavery. After the Supreme Court decision, Mrs. Chaffee turned Dred and Harriet Scott and their two daughters over to Dred's old friends, the Blows, who gave the Scotts their freedom in May 1857. On September 17, 1858, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis and was buried in St. Louis. His grave was moved in the 1860s to Calvary Cemetery in northern St. Louis, and marked due to the efforts of the Rev. Edward Dowling in 1957. Dred Scott did not live to see the fratricidal war touched off at Fort Sumter in 1861, but did live to gain his freedom. The ultimate result of the war, the end of slavery throughout the United States, was not something Dred Scott could have foreseen in 1846, when he decided to sue for his freedom in St. Louis' Old Courthouse.

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Last updated: April 10, 2015

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