DRED SCOTT: The Man Who Lived Free

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DRED SCOTT. Painting by David Geister

DRED SCOTT. Painting by David Geister

His Quest for Justice Pushed Slavery to the Snapping Point

Reprinted from the Philadelphia New Observer

by Tony West
A humble, yet famous 19th-century American led an unusual life – or does it only seem unusual today?

He was an illiterate Black man named Dred Scott, who was born and lived most of his life a slave – or did he? Yet he sued in court for his freedom. He lost, but he also won.

A Supreme Court decision against him empowered Southern defenders of slavery. Cocksure that they had gained the upper hand, they dissolved an uneasy compromise that had allowed North and South to live together. Oceans of ink, as well as blood, have been spilt on that fateful decision. But Dred Scott’s own life may be more interesting.

Little is known of it, though. In fact, the little we know conjures astonishing mysteries. They show how complex and contradictory were everyday race relations for slaves, their owners and their neighbors. They defy the pat theories we use when thinking about slavery; indeed, they suggest that Americans were never clear about what slavery meant.

MIGHTY Mississippi River was gateway to America's West during Scott's life. This was where the action was: where a slaveowner might strike it rich ... and where a slave might find freedom.

MIGHTY Mississippi River was gateway to America’s West during Scott’s life. This was where the action was: where a slaveowner might strike it rich … and where a slave might find freedom.

Maybe literature offers us a clue; or maybe Scott offers us a due to literature. He lived in Missouri, a frontier slaveholding border state where Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was then growing up. Was Scott a kind of Black man familiar to Clemens, inspiring “Jim” in Huckleberry Finn?

Scott was a short, stocky, dark man with a solid beard. Although he could not read or write, he struck whites as rich in common sense. (Many whites could not read in those days either.) He had traveled widely in the personal service of professionals and had done many kinds of work. He showed initiative, reliability and a mind of his own.

Scott was born around 1795 in Virginia, a slave of the Blow family. In 1819, the year Alabama was awarded statehood, Peter Blow moved there with his family, Scott and four other slaves to farm. In 1830, they packed up again to go to St. Louis, where the Blows started a boarding house.

Missouri was on the frontier then. It had been admitted as a state in 1820, a slave state, as part of the Missouri Compromise that outlawed slavery in the rest of the Louisiana territories north of the 36’30” parallel on the map. Blow hired out Scott as a riverboat deckhand for two years. St. Louis was the boom town “Gateway to the West,” where Americans from all quarters joined with immigrants to find their fortune.

Shortly after their arrival in St. Louis, the Blows sold Scott to Dr. Peter Emerson, a physician serving in the United States Army.

Bound For Indian Country

Dr. Emerson was a quarrelsome malcontent, never happy where he was. The peacetime army of that era was a haven for misfits. Army files are stuffed with letters requesting transfers throughout Emerson’s career, citing bad health. He may have been a hypochondriac. He may have been right, however, when he diagnosed himself as syphilitic (contracted in Philadelphia, he said). Progressive syphilis sufferers are often turbulent and irrational.

For a slave, though, personal service in a sleepy post to a casual Northern gentleman may have been a shrewd career move. Some stories suggest that Scott engineered his purchase by Dr. Emerson. But another report notes that Scott was quickly disillusioned with his new master after purchase and ran away, hiding out in a swamp near St. Louis for weeks. Scott was not alone in his discontent; in 1837, another of Dr. Emerson’s slaves sued for his freedom.

AT FORT ARMSTRONG, Illinois, Scott made his first fateful foray onto free soil. Did that mean he was legally no longer a slave?

AT FORT ARMSTRONG, Illinois, Scott made his first fateful foray onto free soil. Did that mean he was legally no longer a slave?

Scott’s master was soon posted to Fort Armstrong at Rock Island, Illinois, upstream from St. Louis on the Mississippi River.

While at Fort Armstrong, Dr. Emerson made real-estate investments in Illinois and across the river in Iowa Territory – with Scott, doubtless, doing much of the clearing and construction labor.

In 1836, Dr. Emerson was transferred to Fort Snelling at what is now Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fort Snelling was the end of the line – Indian country. Scott witnessed the arrival of the first 100 civilian settlers, mostly French métis (Indian halfbreed) backwoodsmen, in 1837. It was then a part of Wisconsin Territory – like Illinois, free soil by law.

AT FORT SNELLING, Minnesota, an army post on the frontier of Indian Country, Dred Scott met his wife Harriet.

AT FORT SNELLING, Minnesota, an army post on the frontier of Indian Country, Dred Scott met his wife Harriet.

At Fort Snelling, Scott met Harriet Robinson, a teenage slave who belonged to the resident Indian agent, a Southerner of Tidewater gentry, Major Lawrence Taliaferro. Was she sold to Dr. Emerson, or just given away – a gentleman’s agreement, out on the frontier where life was practical and egalitarian and rules were rough and ready? The intent was clear. Scott married Robinson. They were married, in fact, by Taliaferro, acting as Justice of the Peace. The marriage lasted for 20 years, until Scott’s death. Dred and Harriet had four children.

A stable, legal marriage was the most-important victory a slave could hope for, even more so than emancipation. Scott surely felt this more keenly than most. He had had a previous marriage, which dissolved when his wife was sold away from him.

In 1837, Dr. Emerson was transferred to Fort Jessup in western Louisiana, which guarded the border with Texas. It was a restless border; the year before, Texas had won independence from Mexico in a war led by American settlers. The Scotts followed a few months later.

In 1838, Dr. Emerson married a St. Louis beauty of Virginian descent, Eliza Irene Sanford, who was visiting her brother-in-law Capt. Henry Bainbridge. She moved immediately to Fort Jessup – taking Dred and Harriet Scott as well, summoned from Minnesota.

Louisiana didn’t last. Within a few months, complaining of rheumatism and a liver disorder, the doctor took the Emerson-Scott ménage back to Fort Snelling. On their way upriver, one of Scott’s daughters was born – north of Missouri, in free territory. They named her Eliza, after Mrs. Emerson.

Soon after Dr. Emerson’s return, personnel disputes broke out anew. In 1840, he was transported to Florida, where an Indian war was in progress. He dropped his wife off in St. Louis, along with the Scotts. Florida didn’t suit the doctor either. The army’s patience was wearing thin too. In 1842, he was courteously discharged. He returned to St. Louis and promptly rook off for Davenport, Iowa, where he opened a practice, began building a house, and died in 1843, one month after his daughter Henrietta’s birth. The official diagnosis was “consumption,” but gentleman syphilitics often died with cover stories.

More to the point of his slave Dred Scott, his master died in a free state, where slavery was illegal.

VIRGINIA gentleman Maj. Lawrence Taliaferro was Harriet's owner. He released her to marry Dred Scott while masters and servants were serving together in a frontier post.

VIRGINIA gentleman Maj. Lawrence Taliaferro was Harriet’s owner. He released her to marry Dred Scott while masters and servants were serving together in a frontier post.

Change of Hands

Dr. Emerson named his wife’s brother John Sanford as executor of his will. Sanford was a prominent businessman who had married into St. Louis aristocracy. The estate was a mess. It contained no records of Dr. Emerson as owning slave property, either in Iowa (where it was illegal) or in Missouri (where it wasn’t).

Probably the Scotts had been staying with their mistress in St. Louis since 1840. In 1843, Capt. Bainbridge was transferred back from Louisiana to Jefferson Barracks in St Louis. Dred was “loaned” to the captain at that time. He described that officer later as “a good man.”

Scott went with Bainbridge back to Fort Jesup in 1844. The next year they went to Corpus Christi, Texas, right after its annexation by the United States. Corpus Christi was a front-line post; next stop, beyond 100 miles of thorny wilderness and disputed frontier, was the hostile Mexican army.

In 1846, Scott was back in St. Louis. He was a man with a plan. He immediately went to his mistress and offered to buy his freedom. He had $300, which was a handsome sum of money at that time. The average white family in Philadelphia was worth about that much.

How had he come by this money? He may have sought a white “angel” for the security at least. But it is likely, given Scott’s extensive work history, often far away from his nominal masters, that he had worked for wages. Some of his owners may have paid him, and he may have moonlighted. Some of his owners may have been business failures – but not Scott!

Scott had another family treasure on his mind. Harriet was about to give birth to his second daughter, Lizzie.

But Eliza Emerson turned down his offer to buy his freedom. She hired the Scotts out to a Samuel Russell instead.

Two weeks later, on Apr.6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott walked into the Missouri circuit court in St. Louis and filed two lawsuits against Mrs. Emerson, charging that they were free.

Family Struggles

Who was the Dred Scott who walked into that courtroom?

He was a shrewd 50-year-old man who had been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. He had lived across the length and breadth of the nation, in five slave states, one free state and one free territory, spending five years on free soil altogether.

MARKER commemorating site of Fort Jesup, Louisiana, wher Dr. Peter & Eliza Emerson and their servants Dred and Harriet Scott spent their respective honeymoons.

MARKER commemorating site of Fort Jesup, Louisiana, wher Dr. Peter & Eliza Emerson and their servants Dred and Harriet Scott spent their respective honeymoons.

He has experienced the big city, where “truth” and “justice” were a babel of foreign voices, and the lone prairie, where a man was a man. He had patiently helped white folks pursue their goals, and he knew how bitter and fragile even their happiness could be. He had worked for a Yankee who couldn’t manage any property without assistance, much less human property. And he, Dred Scott, was married – by the U.S. Government, no less!

Wasn’t he a United States citizen? Wasn’t he, in practical terms, free?

Scott’s argument in court was that, by having traveled to and lived in free jurisdictions at the will of his owner, he had been emancipated. National law stated that slavery could not be imported onto free soil. Legally, if a slaveowner took his slave North to live, that slave ceased to live in bondage. “Sojourn” (temporary passage) did not, however, cancel a slave’s status. Had Scott been a sojourner or a resident? He argued that he had lived free, and could never become a slave again.

Some St. Louis citizens agreed with him. On the border in more than one way, Missourians had long dealt with African-Americans who, though born slaves, no longer functioned as such. In the deep South, manumission was dying out. But Missourians frequently freed their slaves in many ways. Missouri state law had faced cases of slaves carried to neighboring free jurisdictions, and had often recognized their freedom.

Still, an illiterate slave needed literate white help to pursue his freedom. The Blow family – Scott’s original owners – played a major role, even though Scott had left their service 15 years earlier. Three of Peter’s sons, who had grown up while Scott was a family servant, stayed close to the Scotts through what was to become an 11-year legal struggle. One of their brothers-in-law served as Scott’s attorney. They were prominent businessmen. Their motives are unknown – but they didn’t include abolitionism. The Blows were split on slavery, but most of them supported it throughout the Civil War – at great risk, because Missouri remained loyal to the Union.

The Sanford-Emerson family, which owned Scott, fought back tenaciously for the same 11 years to retain their property. Or did they? In 1848, after Dr. Emerson’s death, Eliza Irene Emerson went to live with one of her sisters in Springfield, Massachusetts. There she married Calvin Chaffee, a Yankee who became a leader of the militantly anti-slavery Republican Party, serving in Congress from 1855 to 1859. Was this woman a diehard slavemistress?

An answer may lie in the sexual politics of that era. On her husband’s death, Mrs. Emerson’s affairs were handled first by her father Alexander Sanford, then by her brother John. By 1853, in fact, John Sanford claimed to be Dred Scott’s owner.

Of Irene’s own views, we know nothing – save that she, a Southern belle in an age when sectional patriotism was intense, married first a Pennsylvanian and then a Massachusetts man, finally leaving the South forever. A woman with no voice voted with her heart and her feet.

ST LOUIS in this era was a dynamic boom town where everyone and everything in the USA came together, where all options were being explored, and where anything thing was possible. Even freedom.

ST LOUIS in this era was a dynamic boom town where everyone and everything in the USA came together, where all options were being explored, and where anything thing was possible. Even freedom.

These peculiar relationships fueled conspiracy theories. Debaters hurled charges that the Dred Scott case was a set-up by either abolitionists or slaveholders, designed to create a test case that would overthrow either slave-state rights or free-state rights.

Maybe the truest answer is a muddy one. The Blow-Emerson-Sanford-Chaffee-Scott families weren’t political scientists, just people. They contradicted themselves and disagreed with each other. Their feelings may have fluctuated about slavery in general and the treatment of familiar servants in particular, whom they wanted to respect and subordinate at the same time. And they may have been sloppy. Personal disputes, papers they never got around to filing, could balloon into a communal squabble and then a national cause.

The Case Catches Fire

One thing is certain: although Dred Scott owned at his death, years later, just one shabby black suit, high-priced lawyers duked it out over his freedom. Samuel M. Bay, former attorney general of Missouri, first argued his case in court in 1847, while a Virginian, George Goode, defended the Emerson estate. The Scott case wound a slow, tortuous path up to the Missouri Supreme Court; then to the federal Circuit Court; and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court, the plaintiffs winning at some steps, losing at others.

DRED SCOTT worked all his life as a jack of all trades for several masters, all of whom valued and respected his powers even as they wrangled over his ownership - or whether he should be owned at all.

DRED SCOTT worked all his life as a jack of all trades for several masters, all of whom valued and respected his powers even as they wrangled over his ownership – or whether he should be owned at all.

All these years, Scott worked under the sheriff’s auspices in St. Louis as the law provided. He was rented out in 1848 to Edward LaBeaume, a lawyer who had married into the Blow clan. By 1853, he was rented out to another lawyer, Russell Field – who was also serving as his attorney. People who knew Scott during those years said that he was “as good as free” in everyday life.

Whoever Scott’s backers were by 1854, they were busted. On the 4th of July, a 12-page pamphlet was published in Dred Scott’s name, crying out:

“I have no money to pay anybody at Washington to speak for me. My fellow-men, can any of you help me in my day of trial? Will nobody speak for me at Washington, even without hope of other reward than the blessings of a poor Black man and his family? I do not know. I can only pray that some good heart will be moved by pity to do for me which I cannot do for myself; and that if the right is on my side it may be so declared by the high court to which I have appealed.”

ELITE Missouri lawyer Montgomery Blair took on Dred Scott's national case pro bono.

ELITE Missouri lawyer Montgomery Blair took on Dred Scott’s national case pro bono.

Montgomery Blair, a patrician lawyer of Southern St. Louis stock then in Washington, took on the plaintiff’s case pro bono. Sen. Henry Geyer of Missouri argued the Sanfords’ case.

It was heard by a tribunal of pro-slavery Southerners. Chief Justice Roger Taney led that body. Taney belonged to another oppressed minority: the Catholics of Maryland who had founded that colony but were later swamped by hostile Protestants.

They were, however, slaveholders from the start. Taney had freed his own slaves but was cold to legal challenges to slavery.

On Mar. 6, 1857, Taney issued the court’s verdict on Scott’s appeal. In his opinion he rejected not just Scott’s plea for freedom, but its entire legal groundwork. African Americans had never been citizens and could not become citizens, he pronounced; thus they could not bring actions in court, and the “free soil” of the territories was unconstitutional, he said, by denying Southerners their rights on land owned in common by all states.

After this decision, Scott began to enjoy honor remarkable for a

SUPREME COURT Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Maryland man from another border state, wrote the decision that turned down Dred Scott on all grounds. His harsh decision triggered the Civil War not long after ... much as Brown v Board of Education, a century later, triggered the civil-rights era in a benign way.

SUPREME COURT Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Maryland man from another border state, wrote the decision that turned down Dred Scott on all grounds. His harsh decision triggered the Civil War not long after … much as Brown v Board of Education, a century later, triggered the civil-rights era in a benign way.

slave. Reporters sought him out, asking him to tell his own story. Scott showed great discretion in talking to these young fellows. He made kind mention of some white folks, no mention at all of others. He claimed that he had never paid much attention to his own lawsuit and that he didn’t know what “all that fuss in Washington” was about. Readers who wish to believe this may do so.

Scott had others things on his mind. He was over 60, scrawny now, and ill with tuberculosis.

So Scott lost. Two months later, John Sanford, his titular owner, died. His will made no mention of Scott as his property. Within three weeks, Calvin & Eliza Chaffee sold him to one of the Blow boys, Taylor! Who emancipated him on the spot.

Scott took a job as a hotel porter in St. Louis. Eighteen months later he died.

The Muddled Minds of Slavery

The Dred Scott case is a key to American constitutional-law studies. But what does it tell us about the everyday life of the people who underwent these momentous conflicts?

The life and status of many African Americans in the ante-bellum era were not clear-cut. Especially for those who lived as household servants, in big cities, and on the frontier, the law was fuzzy and social attitudes were even fuzzier. People both white and Black navigated from day to day without nailing down the details.

DRED SCOTT as he appears in only known portrait from life.

DRED SCOTT as he appears in only known portrait from life.

Looking back at slavery from 150 years after its abolition, we think of lordly planters commanding squadrons of isolated, uneducated African Americans. This stereotype was not always true. For many other slave-owners and slaves, life followed the roller-coaster fortunes of other middle- and lower-class people. In practice, some African Americans like Scott lived on a social borderline, behaving – and being treated by whites – as “free” in some contexts, “slave” in others.

Sometimes we talk as if there are only “two Americas” – North and South. Or Black and white. Or rich and poor. Or urban and rural. But Dred Scott lived in a land where North and South, Black and white, city and frontier, wealth and poverty constantly fell together, in a dynamic flux of possibilities.

And he said…. Why not me too? I paid my dues. I’m entitled to a new deal. “Slavery” don’t mean beans; you all know what I’ve done, who I am.

Even the whites who opposed Scott’s quest for freedom as a matter of principle were eager – almost frantic – to grant it to him personally once his action at law was lost. The implication is that they knew he was a free man in spirit and wanted him to have that freedom. Justice Taney’s juridical analysis of the “unfortunate African,” so desperately in need of the civilizing influence of enslavement, applied only to African Americans in general. Applied to Scott the man, it was plain baloney.

Personal acquaintance and loyalty played a huge role in working out these contradictions. Scott was respected by the two families who dueled over rights to his service. He even sued one of those families without incurring abuse. For his part, he worked conscientiously for each family, carving cabins out of the wilderness, slipping their dissolute sons’ boots on in the morning.

And he earned acknowledgements that he was more like a fellow citizen than like chattel, whatever his papers said.

If the whites that Scott worked for were not morally conflicted about slavery, then they must have all been nuts. Nothing else can explain the passionate confusion in which they kept track of this intelligent, skilled, flexible, dependable capital fixture worth thousands of dollars then (much more in today’s money).

Scott was no fool in a backwater field. Had he been inclined, he could have skipped across the Mississippi River in a minute with his family. But his owners trusted him, and he trusted them, to play the game. According to its rules, he would act like a slave if they would treat him like a man. They never pressed the issue; neither, until he was almost 50, did he.

By that point in his life, it appears he had put up with enough indignity and pretence and wanted to set things straight.

HARRIET SCOTT. Painting by David Geistler

HARRIET SCOTT. Painting by David Geistler

Whether free or slave, the daily life of the Scotts wasn’t dramatically different from a modern corporate “wage slave.” They trekked around the country at their bosses’ behest, chasing opportunities. Some panned out, some didn’t. They manipulated the pool of available bosses to improve their own chances. They perfected job skills, established an orderly home life. They maintained good connections with everybody, keeping their eye on current events and on their own family’s goals.

One day, after another bad turn at work, the Scotts saw a legal argument in their favor and they took it to court, pursuing it with bourgeois doggedness. People they’d dealt with thought they were good folks and backed their cause.

If the Scotts weren’t true Americans according to Roger Taney, they sure were acting like true Americans.

Taney died in 1864, still the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But everything he had fought for in the Dred Scott case had turned to dust. The South was losing the war. African Americans, even those not clearly citizens, were soldiering for the Union by the thousands. The Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves throughout the rebel states and the 13th Amendment was approaching ratification.

Dred Scott died a husband and father, a free workingman in a slave state, at the greatest crisis of racial tension in American history – a conflict he had helped bring to a boil, peacefully and lawfully – and was buried with his own black suit on his body.

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