The Dred Scot Case: A Trigger for the Civil War

The chamber of the Senate was not a pleasant place. It was cold, cramped, and dim. But on March 6,1857, the room was full of spectators waiting for the Supreme Court to decide on a controversial case, so controversial that it made it all the way up from local courts to this place.

Before the Civil war, some states had made it legal to have slaves, while in others it had been abolished. The Missouri Compromise had made it so that slavery was illegal north of Missouri. Some territories had also abolished slavery.

In 1824, a slave named Winny sued her owner for freedom because she had been moved from a state where slavery was legal to a state where slavery was not. The court decided “once free, forever free,” and Winny won her freedom.(Footnote 1) There were other cases like this in Missouri, Kentucky, and Louisiana, and all won their freedom.

Years later, a slave named Dred Scott was sold as a slave to Dr. John Emerson in Virginia. Emerson and Dred traveled to places where slavery was illegal, such as Illinois and Wisconsin, but Dred did not ask for or demand his freedom. After Emerson died, Dred decided to act and sued for his freedom. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court eleven years later in 1857. The court decided that Scott was still a slave and that “no man of African descent could become a citizen of the United States.” (Footnote 2)  Scott died only a few months after the decision, still a slave.

In other cases, like the Winny case, slaves had been granted their freedom. But the Supreme Court overruled the decisions of these lower courts- and divided the nation. Protests and a “firestorm of criticism” followed.

Eventually, the Civil War was fought, and decided the issue. But were the states already irreparably divided, or did this case set off the war?

Works Cited (and footnotes)

  1. Sharon Cromwell, Dred Scott v. Sanford: A Slave’s Case for Freedom and Citizenship (Mankato, Minn.: Compass Point Books, 2009), pp. 15-17.
  2. Carol Berkin et al., Making America: A History of the United States, Vol. 1: To 1877, brief 5th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), p.311.
  3. Ethan Greenberg, Dred Scott and the Dangers of a Political Court (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009), p.2.
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