In connection with the establishment of the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Cayuga County, we are publishing periodic history columns on influential African-Americans written by Auburn resident Pauline Copes Johnson, Tubman's great-great-grandniece:
Most school students have studied the case of Dred Scott, and what he accomplished. He was a slave and was purchased by captain John Emerson, an Army officer. What many history books don’t tell us is that Dred Scott was concerned about freedom not only for himself but for his wife, Harriet, and their two children, Eliza and Lizzie.
Emerson took Scott to Illinois. Later, after living there for a while, they returned to Missouri. Dred Scott was a slave for as many as six owners during his lifetime. His last owner let him go off on his own.
Some historians have described him as being “lazy, shiftless and dimwitted.” In fact he was so dimwitted that he turned to the sons of a former owner, wealthy Peter Blow, for help. He claimed that since his owner had taken him into free territory where he lived for four years that he should no longer be considered a slave. The Blow sons agreed with him and helped Scott initiate a case that would outrage the American society. The first case was settled in favor of Scott in a Missouri circuit court in 1852, after having been dragged out for seven years.
John Emerson died in 1843, and so the ownership of Scott passed on to John F. A. Sanford, Emerson’s brother-in-law and executor, who appealed the lower court decision. The case was then taken to the Missouri Supreme Court. The court reversed the lower court’s decision on the grounds that the territory of Illinois and Wisconsin had no status in Missouri. So Dred and his supporters got busy and initiated a new case in 1854, which was filed in the U.S. Circuit Court of Missouri. By this time Sanford had moved to New York state. Judge Robert Wells rejected Scott’s original claim but left open the matter of citizenship.
Henry Blow and Dred Scott appealed again and the case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court. By this time the case had gained considerable notoriety. Each side had taken positions of no compromise. John Brown was reading the papers and so were Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison and many southern slave-owners.
The U.S. Supreme court did not want to deal with the case. They preferred to let the lower court’s decision stand. They were open to the question of whether black people were citizens of the United States and, could slavery extend into the free territories. John Brown was listening and reading. A decision was made on March 6, 1857. The court decided that Dred Scott was not a citizen and therefore should not have been permitted to bring a lawsuit in the first place. The court majority said that “a black man had no rights that a white man had to respect.” They insisted that slaves did not own their bodies but were someone else’s property.
On June 26, 1857, Lincoln argued in the Lincoln-Douglas debate that the court was wrong. And in a dissenting opinion, Justice Curtis pointed out that blacks had voted in five states at the time the Constitution was established by the people of the United States, therefore they were citizens of the United States. Frederick Douglas said in a New York meeting on May 14, 1857, as a result of the Dred Scott decision, “My hopes were never brighter than now.” John Brown, who had already sworn his family members to secrecy, quietly plotted that the time for revolutionary action against the government had come. He would lead it. The flow of runaway slaves had become tremendous.
In the meantime, the Blow sons gained legal title to Dred Scott and his family and set them free immediately. Dred Scott went to work as a porter at Barnum hotel in St. Louis and assisted his wife in her laundry business. Perhaps he did not realize the full importance of his court cases. John Brown went on with his work of black freedom. The only portrait of Dred Scott shows a different expression with deeply furrowed brow and eyes of penetrating strength. His is not the face of dimwittedness or stupidity.
He died of tuberculosis in 1858.