THE CONTROVERSIAL DRED SCOTT DECISION
BY HAROLD SCHWARTZ*
A century has elapsed since the Dred Scott decision, probably the
most famous that the Supreme Court ever delivered, dramatized the
cleavage in American society even more strikingly than had the
open warfare on the plains of Kansas.
The facts of the case, decided on March 6, 1857, were simple
enough. A Negro slave, Dred Scott, sued John F. A. San ford for
freedom on the ground that four
years' residence, from 1834 to
1838, in free territory had rendered him free despite his return
to Missouri, a slave state. During those years he had been the
servant of John Emerson, an
Army surgeon, at Fort Armstrong in Illinois, a free state,
and at Fort Snelling, in what is
now Minnesota, where slavery
had been forbidden by the Missouri Compromise.
The simplicity was deceptive.
In its ten-year passage through
the various state and federal
tribunals the case acquired political importance far beyond its
mere details, as each side in the
worsening sectional controversy
saw an opportunity to make
political capital out of an elderly,
shiftless Negro who may or may not have understood what was
Following 1848 the country was in turmoil over slavery expansion. The South realized by this time that it had come out on the
short end of the Missouri Compromise. The North was free to
expand, while the South was restricted behind an inflexible barrier
Courtesy Missouri Historical Society
*Harold Schwartz received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and is now assistant professor
of history at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.