In 1819, American settlers in Missouri, a region carved from the Louisiana Purchase, submitted a request to Congress for admission into the Union. Many of those who had moved to the territory had migrated from the slaveholding South, bringing their human property with them; by this year, the region's slave population topped 10,000. Thus, it appeared certain that the territory would seek to protect slavery in its constitution, establishing Missouri as a slave state.
New York Congressman James Tallmadge and many northern representatives wished to prevent the spread of slavery into the West. They proposed that statehood be granted under the condition that the institution would be gradually abolished within Missouri's borders; no new slaves would be allowed to enter, and the children of all those already in Missouri would be freed at the age of 25. (This type of "gradual emancipation" policy had been successfully instituted since the end of the Revolution in several northern states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.) But southern representatives, who understood that more slave states meant more southern congressmen, and therefore more federal power, defeated the proposal, leaving the conditions for Missouri's statehood unresolved.
One year later, Illinois Senator Jesse Thomas designed a compromise that, he hoped, would satisfy both factions. Missouri would be allowed to draft the constitution it so desired without any restrictions, and to offset the addition of a new slave state, Maine would be admitted into the Union as a free state. In addition, slavery would be prohibited in all remaining territory north of 36º30', the southern border of Missouri (except, of course, within Missouri itself). Congress voted to adopt Thomas's resolution as the Missouri Compromise.
"This momentous question," Thomas Jefferson remarked about the debate over westward expansion of slavery, "like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the union."31 The Missouri Compromise seemed to address and alleviate these concerns, but the series of events that followed proved that sectional tensions had only been temporarily resolved; moreover, the legal implications of this deal ultimately haunted both proslavery and antislavery advocates.
In the late 1820s, Dred Scott, a Virginia slave also known as "Sam," migrated with his owner Peter Blow to the newly created state of Missouri. Soon after settling in St. Louis, Blow died, leaving his family in dire financial straits. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed near St. Louis, purchased Scott soon thereafter, and took his new charge with him to another Army post in Illinois. Scott served his master in Illinois for nearly three years before he and Emerson moved once again, this time to a fort in the Wisconsin territory. There, master and slave remained for nearly a decade. Within that time, Scott met and wed Harriet Robinson, also a slave, and the couple had two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie.
In 1842, Dred Scott, Harriet Scott, and their two little girls accompanied John Emerson and his new wife Irene back to St. Louis. Shortly after settling in Missouri, Dr. Emerson died, leaving the Scott family in his widow's charge. For the next few years, Irene Emerson sent her slaves to work for other families, a common practice among slaveholders who were not engaged in large crop production. The new arrangement worked in Scott's favor; by saving tips earned while working for others on behalf of his master, Scott managed to scrape together a substantial sum (an estimated $300, by some accounts), and attempted to buy his family's freedom from Emerson's widow.32 When his offer was rejected, however, he chose to seek emancipation by other means.
In 1846, encouraged by his minister and supported financially by the Blows—his old master's family—Dred Scott sued Irene Emerson for his family's freedom. In a St. Louis courthouse, Scott's attorney Francis Murdoch claimed that John Emerson, by escorting Scott onto free soil in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, had legally—even if inadvertently—granted him freedom. Though Scott failed to win the first trial, the judge in the case awarded Scott the opportunity to appeal. In the second trial, argued in 1850, the Circuit Court of St. Louis County ruled that Scott had in fact been free since 1833, the year Dr. Emerson first escorted him to Illinois. Freedom was within reach.
But Irene Emerson, determined that she should not lose valuable property willed to her upon her husband's death, appealed for a new trial. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed to review the transcripts of the case. The widow's attorneys contended that because John Emerson was required by his employer, the United States military, to conduct his work in free territory, he did not voluntarily transport Scott to these regions. The Court agreed and reversed the lower court's decision, declaring that Scott and his family were still slaves.
Scott and his lawyers then took his case to the United States Circuit Court in Missouri. But in 1854, the federal court upheld the prior decision, ruling in favor of John Sandford, Irene Emerson's brother, who had become the primary trustee of her estate. Seven years of litigation had left the plaintiff and his family with little hope for court-mandated emancipation. Only the United States Supreme Court remained, and Scott was determined to appeal one last time.
In March 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion of the Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. John Sandford. In one of the most infamous rulings ever passed down by the Court, Taney struck down the portion of the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery in federal territories and argued that the Constitution not only protected slavery, but also excluded blacks from citizenship. People of African ancestry, he declared, "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution." Therefore, "they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect"; Scott had no right to sue in federal court, and had never been free.33
Immediately following the Court's ruling, John Emerson's widow—who had since remarried—returned Dred Scott, his wife, and daughters to the Blows. The family emancipated the Scotts in May 1857. Both Dred and Harriet Scott died shortly thereafter, unable to witness the legacy of their fight.
The ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford outraged northern antislavery advocates, including the members of the new Republican Party. These factions feared that the U.S. Supreme Court, like the rest of the federal government, was controlled by the Slave Power, an unbreakable federation of proslavery statesmen who sought to dominate every aspect of the national landscape. The South, on the other hand, cheered the ruling, for it struck at the heart of the antislavery crusade. Others, like President James Buchanan, a proslavery Democratic leader committed to protecting the Union by mitigating sectional disputes, hoped that the Supreme Court's decision in the case would at last put the debates surrounding slavery to rest.
But there was no such luck. The Court's assertion that the Constitution was essentially a proslavery document and that the nation was founded as a republic of slaveholders only widened the growing sectional divide. In 1858, the decision provided the basis for a brutal political fight over the admission of Kansas that would result in the collapse of the old political order, the consolidation of the Republican Party, and ultimately, the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States.