Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Scott v. Emerson I: Background and Approach

Unlike the cases I have discussed to date, there is copious information available, both online and in books (you know, the kind made out of paper), about Dred Scott. Although this includes a fair amount of information about the background, most of the discussion centers, of course, on Justice Taney's infamous 1857 Supreme Court decision.

I am going to focus elsewhere -- on the decision of the Supreme Court of Missouri in Scott v. Emerson, 15 Mo. 576, 1852 WL 4171 (1852), Scott's first case, filed in Missouri state court. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the Missouri Supreme Court's decision made Scott's later, federal court suit, and the United States Supreme Court's decision in that second suit, necessary -- and possible. In other words, if the Supreme Court of Missouri had simply adhered to its earlier opinions, Scott would have won on state-law grounds. The United States Court could not have intervened.

In his magnificent -- and I do mean magnificent -- book, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics, Don E. Fehrenbacher explores (among many other things) the many uncertainties and ambiguities about the facts underlying and surrounding Dred Scott and his cases. I will take a different approach. For my purposes, the important facts are those that the Supreme Court of Missouri understood to exist. It was based on those perceived facts that the court issued its decision.

In posts to follow, I will review the facts as the Supreme Court of Missouri understood them. I will then review the court's decision and analysis. As I have with other cases, I intend to quote liberally from the decision to give you a taste of the passion -- red-hot anger is a better term -- that underlay it. Dred Scott the man became, unfortunately, collateral damage in the seething bitterness and hatred roiling the country in the years immediately preceding the Civil War.

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