Harriet Scott and her husband Dred filed their first freedom suit in 1846. Through eleven long years of litigation different defendants – their putative masters and mistresses – resolutely opposed their claim to freedom, and in March 1857 the Supreme Court shut the last door. The Scotts and their children, it seemed, would remain slaves for the rest of their lives.
And yet, shortly after their final victory, the Scotts' owners manumitted them. Why? What accounts for this surprising turn of events?
In her fine new book, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier, lawprof Lea VanderVelde explains why the Scotts' owners relented after all those years.
If anyone owned the Scotts (and there is doubt as to whether anyone did own them – but that is another story) when they left Fort Snelling for St. Louis in 1840, it was Army doctor John Emerson. Dr. Emerson died unexpectedly after a short illness on December 29, 1843, leaving behind his widow, Irene Emerson, nee Sanford.
The name “Sanford” (misspelled as “Sandford”) may ring a bell. Irene was the sister of John F.A. Sanford, a wealthy and successful senior manager of the American Fur Company. Dr. Emerson's will did not mention, much less dispose of Dred and Harriet. At all events, they fell under the direction of Irene and her father, Col. Alexander Sanford (and, as a legal matter, perhaps John F.A. Sanford, the administrator of Dr. Emerson's estate). After Col. Sanford's death in February 1848, Irene and her family, at least, seem to have assumed that the Scotts had become her property.
In 1850, Irene, who had moved to Massachusetts, remarried. Her new husband, a resident of Springfield, was Dr. Calvin C. Chaffee. Dr. Chaffe and his wife, the new Mrs. Irene Chaffee, were now Dred's and Harriet's owners if anyone was. And so it remained through the end of the litigation in March 1857. (I will not delve here into the issue whether Harriet's brother, John F.A. Sanford, ever owned the Scotts. At all events, in December 1856 Sanford suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined. He was never released, dying in May 1857 in a New York insane asylum.)
When the Supreme Court decision was issued in March 1857, the publicity created a problem for Dr. Chaffee. Although the suit had named John F.A. Sanford as the defendant, people quickly realized that Dr. Chaffee and his wife seemed to be the true owners. This was awkward. Not only was the doctor a resident of Massachusetts, where slavery was not popular. In 1854, he had run for Congress emphasizing his anti-slavery views, winning election as a candidate of the American (Know Nothing) party. In 1856 he ran and won again, this time as a Republican.
Rep. Chaffee was labeled a hypocrite. In a footnote, Prof. VanderVelde cites and quotes from Mason Arnold Green, Springfield, 1636-1886: History of Town and City (1888):
Mrs. Emerson, the owner of Dred Scott, had married, after the doctor's death, Congressman Chaffee, of this town [Springfield, MA], and Mr. [John F.A.] Sanford, the administrator of the Emerson estate, was the brother of Mrs. Chaffee, nee Emerson. Mr. Chaffee's political enemies were not slow in piling the dry fagots of insinuation under his reputation and lighting a blaze. He was charged with the intent of making money out of the very slave system which upon the floor of Congress he had condemned. With a twenty years' honorable record as an antislavery man, he was compelled to deny these strictures, and to say in public, "There is no earthly consideration that could induce me to exercise proprietorship in any human being; for I regard slavery as a sin against God and a crime against man," and he added, "If, in the distribution of the estate, of which this decision affirms, these human beings to be put, it appears that I, or mine, consent to receive any part of the thirty pieces of silver, then, and not till then, let the popular judgment, as well as the public press, fix on me the mark of a traitor to my conscience."
Dr. Chaffee moved quickly to limit the damage. Under Missouri law, only a resident of Missouri could manumit a slave residing in that state. Chaffee transferred ownership of Dred and Harriet to Taylor Blow, a younger son of Peter Blow, Dred's original owner. “Taylor Blow then filed the $1,000 freedom bond necessary to emancipate each of the Scotts, as he had done for several others before. Dred and Harriet each signed their freedom papers with the same shaky 'x' that they had used in filing their lawsuit.”
Prof. VanderVelde notes a final irony lost amidst Dr. Chaffee's denials that he would profit from the affair:
What went unnoticed, however, was that Mrs. Chaffee's attorney appeared in court to collect the wages that the Scotts had earned during the long trial. In the end, it seems all the wages earned by the Scotts for the trial's duration were paid over to Chaffee's attorney, and probably transferred to Irene Emerson Chaffee . . ..
(In Dr. Chaffee's defense, I wonder whether he provided the funds that Taylor Blow used to post the freedom bonds, which were presumably greater than the Scotts' accumulated wages.)
I see it's Juneteenth. Reading Prof. VanderVelde's examination of slavery on the frontier in the mid-nineteenth century would be an apt way to contemplate the meaning of the date.