Courtesy State Historical Society
Slavery and Scott
Calvin C. Chaffee was in for quite a surprise. An abolitionist elected to Congress, he had married the widow Irene Emerson in 1850. He was apparently unaware that she owned arguably the most prominent slave in America, Dred Scott. Rather interesting baggage.
Scott had garnered attention after being involved in a number of trials leading all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Originally born into slavery, his life story turned out to be pivotal to the beginning of the Civil War.
From infancy, he was the property of the Peter Blow family. Slaves were financial assets, which could be used in the same way as property. As such, Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson when the Blows suffered money problems. Many records show that Peter Blow died, which resulted in Scott being sold to Emerson. An army surgeon, Emerson took his slave with him as he received assignments outside of Missouri. Two of the places they worked, Illinois and the Wisconsin Territories, were under the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery.
Eventually, Emerson and Scott each got married and in 1842 returned to the slave state of Missouri, living in St. Louis. The doctor soon died, but his widow made use of her “assets,” hiring the Scotts out to work for other families. Scott was illiterate and may not have been aware of the doctrine, “once free, always free,” which would have made his family free people since they had lived in a free state and territory.
In an interesting turn of events, Scott reconnected with the Blow family, who first owned him. They were willing to finance his efforts to be legally free, and so in 1846, he filed suit, going to trial in 1847 in the old courthouse in downtown St. Louis. A series of trials followed. Scott lost the first but won the second round when the jury said “once free, always free” should prevail. But Widow Emerson and her brother appealed. The 1852 decision went their way and was explained as follows: “Times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made.” Scott filed a new suit in St. Louis against Mrs. Emerson’s brother, which went to trial in 1854. Scott lost, but the United States Supreme Court accepted and heard the appeal in 1857.
In the context of the times, the case was more about property than people. Slaves belonged to their owners, not as people but as property. Owners didn’t see the relevance between where they happened to be—in a free or slave state—and continued ownership of their property. The makeup of the United States Supreme Court at that time was crucial. The chief justice was Roger Brooke Taney. He was born in Maryland into a wealthy family of tobacco farmers who were also slave owners.
In 1835, Andrew Jackson submitted Taney’s name to be an associate justice. After the death of Chief Justice John Marshall that same year, President Jackson wanted Taney confirmed as chief justice. That’s what happened in March of 1836, despite a bitter fight against the appointment. Arguments took place before the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 1856, with sessions devoted to the question in both February and December. The final majority decision was handed down March 6, 1857. Taney wrote the opinion, declaring that the attitudes toward slavery when the constitution was constructed were not favorable to a slave ever becoming a citizen. The court later widened that to include a prohibition against citizenship for even the free descendants of slaves and determined that Congress could not forbid slavery in the territories.
Again the property question was addressed: Slaves were property and not citizens, so they could not bring suit in a federal court. Justice Taney said that Slave Scott as property was subject to the provisions of the Fifth Amendment, which prohibited taking property from an owner without due process. By this time, Irene Emerson, who had been married to Dr. Emerson, had been widowed and remarried to Calvin Chaffee, the abolitionist. Her brother, who had championed her through the first trials, was in an insane asylum. Chaffee, embarrassed and criticized, arranged Scott’s return to his original owners, the Blow family. They had aided his struggle for freedom and now emancipated him on May 26, 1857. He worked as a freeman, laboring as a porter at Barnum’s Hotel until his death in 1858. The aftershocks of the decision were incredible. Taney labeled opposition to slavery as northern aggression. He was widely criticized for the Dred Scott decision, of which Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts said: “The opinion of the chief justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion.”
But there was another result: The decision inflamed the country and is considered one of the most influential forces in the outbreak of the Civil War. Alongside the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the newspaper The Liberator, publication of the court decision made common people aware of what slavery meant and moved them to action.
2007 was the 150th anniversary of that decision. St. Louis has since hosted events that have commemorated the Dred Scott decision and taught today’s citizens some of the basic civil rights that many take for granted. An exhibit was held in St. Louis’s Old Courthouse and was especially poignant as the site where the first trials began a century and a half ago. There were original documents collected from the St. Louis Circuit Court, the Missouri Supreme Court, the City of St. Louis, the National Archives, the St. Louis Mercantile Library, the Missouri Historical Society, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.