Roger Brooke Taney was one of the most respected jurists and statesmen of his time. The Carroll County native served variously as President Andrew Jackson’s attorney general, secretary of the treasury, and acting secretary of war, and wore the robe of Chief Justice of the United States with honor and humanity for nearly 30 years.
Yet the decision for which he’s best remembered set the course of abolition and emancipation back decades, and helped propel the nation into four years of bitter civil war. No single event—with the possible exception of John Brown’s abortive raid on Harpers Ferry—was more instrumental in driving the wedge that divided the country than the case of Scott v. Sandford (60 US 393), better known as the Dred Scott Decision.
Dred Scott was a slave originally belonging to Missourian Peter Blow. When Blow died in 1832, Scott was acquired by a U.S. Army surgeon named John Emerson. In 1833, Emerson moved with Scott from the slave territory of Missouri to Fort Armstrong, in the free state of Illinois.
Four years later, master and slave moved to Fort Snelling, in Wisconsin (which had been declared a slavery-free territory by an act of Congress). Here, Scott met and—with Emerson’s permission—married fellow slave Harriet Robinson.
Emerson was ordered back to Missouri in 1837 and left Scott and his wife at Fort Snelling, renting them out as a business venture, thereby violating a number of state, territorial, and federal laws. Reassigned to Louisiana the following year, Emerson ordered Scott and his wife to join him.
Technically, for the five years in which Scott had lived in Illinois and Wisconsin, he had been an illegally detained free man. To further complicate matters, Harriet delivered the Scotts’ first daughter on the way to Louisiana as the steamboat on which they were traveling navigated through free territorial waters. According to state and federal law, the baby was born free (although Emerson refused to recognize her as such).
It was not until 1846 that the Scotts sought redress. By this time, Emerson had died, and according to various accounts, Scott attempted to purchase his family’s freedom from Emerson’s widow. She refused.
Scott, with the support of abolitionist attorneys and financial backing from an unlikely source—Taylor Blow, son of his former master—sued in a Missouri state court for his and Harriet’s freedom and the recognition of his daughter as a freeborn person. During the process, a second daughter was born to the Scotts.
The case was dismissed on a technicality. Scott spent the next several years in and out of court, until the case found its way to the United States Supreme Court. In early 1857, Chief Justice Taney and the other eight justices prepared to hear the case of Scott v. Sandford.
There had recently been a national election, however, and President-elect James Buchanan saw the case as an opportunity. The pro-Southern Buchanan inappropriately pressured members of the court for a decision that would resolve the delicate issue of slavery in the territories.
On March 6, 1857, Taney delivered the court’s 7-2 opinion that no one of African descent—whether slave or free—could be considered a citizen of the United States, and therefore could not claim the protection of the Constitution. As property, Dred Scott had no legal standing or right to bring suit in federal court.
In several states, free African Americans had enjoyed the rights of citizens to vote, own property, and hold public office since the beginning of the Revolution. With the Dred Scott Decision, the Supreme Court torpedoed those rights.
The court also held that Congress lacked the authority to ban slavery in the federal territories. This had been an issue for decades, going back to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the northern territories.