Dred Scott

by Ben Johnson
Special to The Black Business Journal

I'm in St. Louis, Missouri, as I write this, doing some research on an important part of American history. I'm learning about the one-time slave, Dred Scott, and the hornet's nest he stirred up when he demanded to be freed from slavery.

When Scott died in St. Louis in 1858, he had no idea of the place he would assume in history. He wouldn't know that the lawsuit he filed to ask for his freedom would result in the start of the Civil War. He certainly didn't know that his lawsuit ultimately would result in the end of slavery in America. But that's what Dred Scott's seemingly inconsequential lawsuit means in the history of America. Surely you remember that name from your American history class. The divisiveness over the case and slavery helped elect Abraham Lincoln as president.

Scott's case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, not once but twice. It would take more than a decade to resolve. The Supreme Court's two Dred Scott decisions have given him a notable place in the history books. Even though he eventually was denied his freedom and even was declared to be less than a person, Scot ultimately was the big winner. In fact, we all are winners because of what Scott endured. In 1847 Dred Scott sued his owner, a Missouri doctor, for his freedom. He insisted that because he had lived in so-called free territories for several years, he should remain a free man, not a slave. The case first was heard in St. Louis' stately domed courthouse in 1847. The case dragged on, with Scott actually winning in a lower court. But appeal after appeal ensued. Scott finally lost the case on March 6th, 1858. The high court ruled that Scott wasn't even a citizen of the United States.

The case revolved around whether a piece of property properly owned in one state could be denied the owner if the property is moved to another state with different ownership laws. It seems incomprehensible today but the case over Dred Scott boiled down to whether a person was a piece of property. The highest court in the land ruled that Scott indeed was property and not protected by the Constitution. In fact, the ruling said Scott, as a piece of property, had no standing to even file a lawsuit.

A short time after the final decision, Scott's new owner granted him and his wife, Harriet, their freedom. Less than a year later, Dred Scott died. But he died a free man. The court case did not resolve the dispute over slavery between the North and the South. He would never know that his case would help elect a president, launch the Civil War and end slavery. That's quite a legacy.

Ben Johnson is a syndicated columnist, journalist and talk show host based in Huntsville, Ala., and Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a contributing editor of The Black Business Journal.
E-mail: umzi@ro.com.