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The Case of Dred Scott Decision and Its Effect on Slavery

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The author Don E. Fehrenbacher was a professor of American History at Stanford University. He won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for the Dred Scott Case and also won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Impending Crisis”. He earned his Doctorate in American History from University of Chicago. Fehrenbacher was a very intelligent man, he was a professor for 31 years with Stanford while also writing books but to review the Dred Scott was a risky choice because Dred Scott v. Sanford has been a case that has been reviewed many times before. Don E. Fehrenbacher goes into a deeper examination of the Dred Scott Case than ever before. To understand the Dred Scott case we have to understand the situation for Dred Scott. Dred Scott was born in 1795 in Virginia. He was moved with his owner to Alabama in 1818 in the farm for Peter Blow.

Once Blow’s farm closed down, Scott was sold to U.S Army Surgeon John Emerson. Dred Scott then was taken to Fort Armstrong, in Illinois and Fort Snelling, in Wisconsin. Both of those places although they did prohibit slavery Dred Scott could not obtain his freedom. Scott went on to marry Harriet Robinson, Harriet’s owner was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, he was an Indian agent. In 1837, Dred Scott’s owner, Emerson, was ordered to a military post in St. Louis, Missouri. Emerson left Scott and his wife to be leased out for work. This went on for a year before Emerson sent for them after he resigned from the Army. Along the to return to Emerson, Scott had a baby girl, Eliza, who was born in a free state. She was technically a free person for her entire life.

Emerson got reassigned in the Army where he served in the Seminole war. Emerson passed away in 1843, but his wife continued to lease out Scott’s services for three years after Emerson’s death. After the three years passed Scott attempted to purchase his family and his freedom. After Mrs. Emerson, refused to accept any purchase, Scott had to resort to legal recourse. In 1846, Dred and Harriet both filed separate lawsuits for their freedom. They both filed against Irene Emerson based on Missouri Statutes that allowed any person of color the right to sue for wrongful enslavement. The other statute stated that any person that was taken to a free state was granted their freedom and could not become enslaved again.

Since Dred and Harriet had both lived in a free state that would mean that they should have been granted their freedom when Dred was first moved to Illinois. Dred and his wife could not read nor write and they needed a lot of support to plead their case. Luckily enough the church that they attended helped them out as well as the Blow family, the ones who owned Dred Scott before. Since living in free states they hoped they could use this as a key to grant their freedom.

In Scotts first attempt at court did not go over all too well. Scott had three different lawyers during the trial. Unfortunately, Scotts lost on a technicality saying Scott had proof that he was a slave to Irene Emerson. Scott was granted a new trial in 1847. The new trial did not begin until 1850 due to certain circumstances. In the second trial the technicality was cleared up when Adeline Russell admitted to leasing Scotts work while being in a free state. The jury found in favor of Scott and his family. Irene Emerson could not stand to lose four slaves and money so she went to the supreme court in 1852 and challenged the ruling of the second trial. The ruling got reversed and it was stated that Dred Scott and his wife should have filed for freedom in a free state.

Dred Scott and his family went back and forth in the legal system fighting for their rights to become citizens. He sued his owner in 1853, John Sanford, for wrongful enslavement and assault on his family. In 1854, Dred Scott’s case file ended up on a United States Supreme court where it was historically called Dred Scott v. Sanford. Now that we have the full background to the book we can now dive deeper into the book by Don Fehrenbacher. For beginners let me say that I absolutely loved this book, it is directly up my field of interest. Fehrenbacher is very straight forward and very knowledgeable in American History. Fehrenbacher comes out the first few pages and addresses the concept that early blacks were used as a servant just as some white indentured servants. He also makes the point that some white indentured servants were taken from their home while all of the black slaves were ripped from their homes. Fehrenbacher later addresses the three-fifth rule, yes this was used in the constitution but the three-fifth rule was to tell that a slave is worth three-fifths of a freeman. As a reader this makes my book so much more interesting because he does this at the beginning of the book, he came out guns blazing.

The Dred Scott case was so vital in history, this had a major impact in leading up to the Civil War. He then starts to discuss the many ways slavery is in the constitution. The thing that stands out the most is when he brought up the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act made it to where every slave had to return to their owners even if they were free or in a free state. This was directly from Article 4 of our constitution. The author argued that this was an attempt on limiting the state authority, but it turned into an expansion of federal authority.

Fehrenbacher gave a lot insight when looking at the Dred Scott case, the most interesting thing to learn was the infamous quote, “Negros have no rights to which the white man in bound to respect”. The reason for the misquote becoming the biggest controversy of the majority opinion was because Taney originally revised the opinion instead of going straight to publishing it. The other two published their opinions without revising them. Taney used the phrase as historical context and not as a statement.

Taney reportedly edited the original opinion from 37 pages to 55 pages. Fehrenbacher goes further into depth on Taney’s opinion, the majority opinion was 7-2 against Dred Scott. Chief Justice Taney was the one addressed the majority opinion. Taney said the question is simple,

After Taney asked the question, Fehrenbacher says the energy shifted. The question shifted from could Dred Scott and his family be granted their freedom and it switched to if Dred Scott and his family be considered citizens of the United States. The court ruled against Scott and his family, based on Article III of the constitution black people could never qualify for diversity of citizenship. It was ruled that slaves and their ancestors were not intended to be in American society of political landscape.

This entire case was a huge buildup to the Civil War. This case hurt the case for the Republican party. The ruling to this case saw this as a move to try and make slavery legal in all the States throughout the country. A Illinois state politician stood up against this and spoke out. This man was Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest presidents known in U.S History. Fehrenbacher is a clear expert in this time period. He won the Lincoln Prize in 1997. Looking at this case and how much Dred Scott and his family went through is really brought to life through Fehrenbacher. He shows the everyday struggle that was presented to Scott and his family. The book was very strong in the beginning, it begin with very strong points about the time period and the sequence of events that took place.

Although Scott and his family were unable to get their freedom through the court, Scott was sold back to his original owner’s son, Taylor Blow. Taylor granted Dred Scott and his family their freedoms once he obtained possession of them. Scott died of Tuberculosis shortly after obtaining his freedom. Fehrenbacher will definitely shine light on this time period and this case, if you are fan of U.S. History then I would definitely recommend that you read this.

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