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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Dred Scott vs. Sandford

One of the Supreme Court's most critical rulings on slavery, Dred Scott vs. Sandford (1857), began with transportation. Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia in 1799. He moved with his owner's family to Huntsville, Alabama, and St. Louis, Missouri, where he was sold to Dr. John Emerson of the U.S. Army. Dr. Emerson took Scott along on 2-year assignments in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territories (Fort Snelling in what is now Minnesota), where slavery was illegal.

After marrying Irene Sandford, Dr. Emerson returned to Missouri in 1842 and was transferred to Louisiana. Dr. Emerson summoned Scott and his wife Harriet, who traveled over 1,200 miles down the Mississippi River, apparently unaccompanied, to join their owners. Upon the death of Dr. Emerson in 1843, Mrs. Emerson's brother, John F. A. Sandford, became executor of the Emerson estate, including Dred and Harriet Scott. After being rented to an Army Captain, Scott attempted to buy freedom for himself and his wife for $300. When the offer was refused, he took to the courts in 1847.

The March 1857 ruling written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford has long been considered one of the darkest moments in the history of the Supreme Court. It found that descendents of black Africans-whether free or slave-could not be citizens of a State under the Constitution. Neither the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 nor the Missouri Compromise legislation of 1820 could confer citizenship. Slaves had no right to freedom or to pursue freedom in the courts; they were property subject only to the conditions of sale.

(In 1850, Mrs. Emerson married an abolitionist, Calvin Chaffee. After the Supreme Court ruling, he directed the return of Scott to his original owner's family, the Blow Family. They freed Dred and Harriet Scott on May 26, 1857. Dred Scott died in September 1858; Harriet survived him by 18 years, dying in 1876.)

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000