Dred Scott Dossier

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In high school I only got a very basic summary of the Dred Scott case, but in a Constitutional Law class at Boston College I really got to dig deeper into it.  Teaching a summer African American Experience this summer, I wanted to use case studies for each unit to give students a chance to really look at something in depth and do college level work.  The result was this assignment which breaks the case into several parts and gives students a chance to make their own legal decisions and assess Justice Taney’s.

Dred Scott Dossier

American law is based on precedent, meaning that each decision is based on not only the written law, but also previous legal decisions.  That is why lawyers must spend so much time studying law and why there are extensive legal libraries.  In this activity, you will examine a historical legal case and make your own legal decision based on the facts.  Read the documents carefully, and render your decision at the end.


The Situation: Dred Scott was born a slave.  He was owned by an army doctor, Dr. John Emerson, who brought Scott with him to his work assignments.  In the 1830s, Dr. Emerson took Scott with him to Fort Armstrong in Illinois and Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory.  Because of the Northwest Ordinance & the Missouri Compromise, slavery was prohibited in Illinois and the Wisconsin territory.

While living at Fort Snelling with Dr. Emerson, Scott was married to Harriet in a civil ceremony.  This was unusual because slaves were traditionally not allowed to be legally married (they usually had informal ceremonies within the slave community).  Dr. Emerson knew about this wedding.

Dr. Emerson moved back to Missouri and got married, and then summoned for Scott and his wife to join them.  They lived in Missouri and Louisiana, which were both slave states.  A few years later, Dr. Emerson died and Mrs. Emerson became Dred Scott’s owner.  Dred Scott sued Mrs. Emerson for his freedom, claiming that living in free states had made him—and his family—free and participating in a civil marriage proved that he and his wife were legally free.  Mrs. Emerson did not want him to be free, and later sold him to a man in New York named John Sanford (which is often misspelled as “Sandford”).  After appealing his case, he sued the New York man, Sanford, for his freedom.

Relevant Legal Precedents & Laws

Use these facts to analyze Dred Scott’s case.  How does this information apply to Dred Scott’s case?  Does it prove that he is free or enslaved?

Somerset v. Steward (1772) Summary: An Englishman living in America purchased a slave and took him to England.  The Englishman (Steward) wanted to send his slave to Jamaica to be sold.  The slave, Somerset, argued that since there were no laws in England making slavery legal, then slavery must not exist in England and he must be free.  Somerset sued Steward for his freedom.

Court Decision: Slavery can only exist through positive law.  If there is no law saying slavery exists, then everyone must be free.

Northwest Ordinance (1787) Summary: Land in the Great Lakes region (modern-day Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, etc) would become part of the US and would be able to become states when they had large enough populations.  Slavery would not be permitted there.
Missouri Compromise (1821) Summary: New territories that are not yet states (specifically land that was part of the Louisiana Purchase) would be free of slavery if they were north of the southern border of Missouri and would permit slavery if they were south of Missouri.  The exception would be Missouri, which would permit slavery.
US Constitution: Article I, Section 2 Text: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
US Constitution: Article III, Section 2 Text: The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases… between Citizens of different states…
US Constitution: Article IV, Section 2 Text: …No Person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labor, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due.
US Constitution: Amendment V Text: No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law…
US Constitution: Amendment X Text: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Your Conclusion: When you write your conclusion, you must use these legal precedents to prove your ideas. (Example: “Article 1, section 2 of the Constitution proves that…” or “Because of the Missouri Compromise….”  Please write on lined paper.

Summary of Chief Justice Taney’s Decision

Chief Justice Taney’s decision in the Dred Scott case was as controversial in 1857 as it is today.  It did, however, receive the support of the other Supreme Court justices—only two disagreed.  Some say that it was firmly based on legal precedent.  Others say that he interpreted the laws to back his own point of view.  Let’s look at his decision, compare it to the laws we read yesterday, and analyze it for ourselves.

His argument Legal Precedent that supports his argument (or which law is he talking about?) Did Taney interpret it correctly?
The main question in Dred Scott v. Sandford is whether or not an African-American whose ancestors were brought here to be slaves can ever be a citizen.

N/A

African-Americans aren’t citizens and can’t ever be.
Dred Scott isn’t a citizen of any state, so he can’t sue Sanford US Constitution: Article III, Section 2
Slavery is constitutional
Laws of other countries do not apply to the US
Slaves are property, and the Constitution protects the right of property
The US government cannot override state laws that permit slavery
The Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional because it interferes with states’ laws about slavery

Summing it all up: In your opinion, is the Taney decision more correct, or more incorrect?  Explain your answer.

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