Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dred Scott: Statue of Freedom

Photo By Raymond House
In the mid 1800’s a legal issue in the state of Missouri involving slavery further flamed the debate of whether to abolish it and eventually led to the Civil War.  At the center of the controversy was Dred Scott.  He had been born a slave around 1799 to the Blow family in Virginia.  After the family relocated to Saint Louis they sold Scott to John Emerson.  When Emerson died Scott tried to buy his freedom from the estate of Emerson’s wife who inherited him as property. The attempt was unsuccessful and in 1846 with the help of legal representation, Scott filed suit in the Saint Louis Circuit Court. The basis of his argument hinged on the fact that he had been taken by his owner from the slave state of Missouri into areas where slavery was against the law. This was a violation of “Once free, always free”, a common law doctrine that had been previously recognized by the courts. The law made it illegal for slaves who had ever been freed to be enslaved again.  Under the ownership of John Emerson, Scott had lived with him in the free-state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin.  The governing entities in anti-slavery areas also supported the view that time spent by slaves in free-states and territories made them free. Since there were no laws within their boundaries to govern the possession of slaves, they believed that slave owners with slaves in their jurisdictions forfeited their rights to own them.  Without a legal precedence of someone trying to obtain their freedom after leaving a free area and returning to a slave state, the court had to determine a course of action.  In 1847 the case went to trial and despite the favorable legal presence of the Once Free, Always Free Law and the strong anti-slavery sentiments of abolitionists, the judgment went against Scott and he remained a slave. However, due to the evidence of hearsay discovered after the verdict, the judge ordered a re-trial.  In the second trial, citing the fact that Scott had been wrongfully enslaved while living in free-areas a jury decided to grant him his freedom.  Displeased with the decision, his owner appealed it and in 1852 the Missouri Supreme Court overturned it.  The court stated that “Once free, always free”, which had been adhered to for the previous 28 years was no longer applicable.  Scott was returned to a life of slavery. Since Scott’s owner lived in New York, his lawyer was able to have the case retried under appeal in the federal district court. Another trial was held. Nevertheless, the original decision was upheld, Scott lost his case and again was denied his freedom.  In 1857 the case went to the United States Supreme Court. It decided against awarding Scott his freedom too. The judge ruled that no person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States. Furthermore, since he was not considered a citizen, it was illegal for him to file suit in a federal court. The court also concluded that granting Scott his freedom after he temporarily lived in anti-slavery areas, would have denied his rightful owner of possessing his property, which would have been a violation of the Missouri Compromise.  Still considered as the property of the newly married heiress Irene Emerson, Scott's status was reaffirmed to be that of a slave.  Emerson's marriage prior to the Supreme Court verdict was the start of an unexpected turn toward freedom for Scott.  Emerson's husband was an abolitionist and had been unaware that his wife owned the most controversial slave in the country. After finding out, he and his wife decided to return Scott to his original owners, the Blow family.  The Blow family had also become abolitionists and just four months after the Supreme Court ruling they released Scott and his wife Harriet.  Finally after years of fighting court battles as a slave Scott was free. In September 1858 he went to work as a porter and less than two years later he died from tuberculosis. In 1863, a few years after Scott's death the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order by President Lincoln started the process of freeing all slaves.

Interestingly, it was in the court of law that Scott pursued his liberty, but it was through the court of changing public opinion that he gained it. As the progressive attitude to abolish slavery grew it persuaded the people who owned Scott to set him free.  Perhaps it’s fitting where the statue of Scott and his wife erected in 2012 is located. 155 years after its ruling to keep him enslaved the statue of Dred Scott stands in the yard of the Saint Louis Old Courthouse. Ironically, as a lifeless sculpture he has gained more freedom outside the courthouse than he was able to as a living person inside of it.

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