The Beginnings Of Scott V. Sandford
During the 1850's in the United States, Southern support of slavery and Northern opposition to it collided more violently than ever before over the case of Dred Scott, a black slave from Missouri who claimed his freedom on the basis of seven years of residence in a free state and a free territory. When the predominately proslavery Supreme Court of the United States heard Scott's case and declared that not only was he still a slave but that the main law guaranteeing that slavery would not enter the new midwestern territories of the United States was unconstitutional, it sent America into convulsions. The turmoil would end only after a long and bloody civil war fought primarily over the issue of slavery and its extension into America's unorganized territories. The Supreme Court's ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford helped hasten the arrival of the American Civil War, primarily by further polarizing the already tense relations between Northerners and Southerners.
America in 1857 was, as Kenneth Stampp put it, "a Nation on the Brink." Relationships between the Northern and Southern states had been strained for decades, but during the 1840's and especially the 1850's, the situation exploded. The Compromise of 1850 served as a clear warning that the slavery issue, relatively dormant since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, had returned. As territories carved out of the Mexican cessions of 1848 applied for statehood, they stirred a passionate and often violent debate over the expansion of the South's "peculiar institution." Proslavery and antislavery forces clashed frequently and fatally in "Bleeding Kansas," while the presidential election of 1856 turned ugly when southern states threatened secession if a candidate from the antislavery Republican party won. Into this charged atmosphere stepped a black slave from Missouri named Dred Scott.
Scott's beginnings were quite humble. Born somewhere in Virginia, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with his owners in 1830 and was sold to Dr. John Emerson sometime between 1831 and 1833. Emerson, as an Army doctor, was a frequent traveler, so between his sale to Emerson and Emerson's death in late 1843, Scott lived for extended periods of time in Fort Armstrong, Illinois, Fort Snelling, Wisconsin Territory, Fort Jessup, Louisiana, and in St. Louis. During his travels, Scott lived for a total of seven years in areas closed to slavery; Illinois was a free state and the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had closed the Wisconsin Territory to slavery. When Scott's decade-long fight for freedom began on April 6, 1846, he lived in St. Louis and was the property of Emerson's wife.
The famous Scott v. Sandford case, like its plaintiff, had relatively insignificant origins. Scott filed a declaration on April 6, 1846, stating that on April 4, Mrs. Emerson had "beat, bruised, and ill-treated him" before imprisoning him for twelve hours. Scott also declared that he was free by virtue of his residence at Fort Armstrong and Fort Snelling. He had strong legal backing for this declaration; the Supreme Court of Missouri had freed many slaves who had traveled with their masters in free states. In the Missouri Supreme Court's 1836 Rachel v. Walker ruling, it decided that Rachel, a slave taken to Fort Snelling and to Prairie du Chien in Illinois, was free. Despite these precedents, Mrs. Emerson won the first Scott v. Emerson trial by slipping through a technical loophole; Scott took the second trial by closing the loophole. In 1850, the case reached the Missouri Supreme Court, the same court that had freed Rachel just fourteen years earlier. Unfortunately for Scott, the intervening fourteen years had been important ones in terms of sectional conflict. The precedents in his favor were the work of "liberal-minded judges who were predisposed to favor freedom and whose opinions seemed to reflect the older view of enlightened southerners that slavery was, at best, a necessary evil."  By the early 1850's, however, sectional conflict had arisen again and uglier than ever, and most Missourians did not encourage the freeing of slaves. Even judicially Scott was at a disadvantage; the United States Supreme Court's Strader v. Graham decision (1851) set some precedents that were unfavorable to Scott, and two of the three justices who made the final decision in Scott's appearance before the Missouri Supreme Court were proslavery. As would be expected, they ruled against Scott in 1852, with the third judge dissenting. Scott's next step was to take his case out of the state judicial system and into the federal judicial system by bringing it to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Missouri.