Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Aftermath of Dred Scott

This is a classic example of how history can gloss over things inconvenient to the storyline, and how things can turn completely on their head after people have stopped paying attention. Dred Scott, of course, is famous for being the slave who went before the Supreme Court in 1856 and argued for his freedom, only to be told in a 7-2 decision that he was not only a slave, but that he was not human but rather a piece of property.

The event is always told in the context of injustice towards blacks, and/or the runup to the Civil War. As such, the story always seems to end at the Supreme Court decision. Nobody ever goes any further. One is left to assume that Dred was simply led away and lived out the rest of his life as a slave. Perhaps he was starved or beaten to death by his owner.

Not quite.

To understand the aftermath, you must first note the full name of the case, 'Dred Scott v. Sandford'. Don't look at Scott. Look at Sandford. Sandford is John F.A. Sandford, Scott's owner when he brought his case to federal court. This was Scott's second attempt; he had previously lost a Missouri Supreme Court case against another owner, John Emerson. Somewhere along the line, Sandford had been committed to an insane asylum; he would die there two months after the Supreme Court ruling.

Clearly, he was in no position to reclaim Scott, though his name would remain on the name of the case the entire way through. John Emerson had died in 1843, three years into proceedings. Scott had passed to Emerson's widow, Irene Emerson, whom Scott had tried to buy his freedom from for $300; her refusal was the spark that caused this whole endeavor.

Since losing in Scott v. Emerson, though, Irene had remarried.

To an abolitionist.

Member of Congress.

Say hello to abolitionist Calvin Chafee of free-state Massachusetts, Irene's new husband. It was February 1857, shortly before Chafee was to begin his second term in the House of Representatives. (Terms started in March back then.)

Apparently, Irene had never told Chafee about Dred. He found out in the newspaper like everybody else. By the time he woke up one day, looked in the paper, and did the spit take to end all spit takes, it was too late. The Springfield Argus wrote "All the long years of servitude through which this [Scott] family has been doomed to labor has this hypocrite kept their ownership by his family from the public, while he had profited, not only by their labor, but by his extraordinary professions of love for the poor Negro."

It was one month before the verdict would be rendered, far too late to do anything about it. His political career went off a cliff right then and there. The abolitionist Congressman owned the most famous slave in America and didn't tell anyone. There was no way back from that.

But there was still the matter of Scott. The obvious move would be to simply free Scott. That was not possible. Chafee and Emerson were from Massachusetts, but Scott was from Missouri, and only a Missouri resident could free him. Chafee frantically tracked down Scott's original owners, the Blow family. Taylor Blow, the son of Scott's first owner and a childhood playmate of Scott's, did the deed.

Dred Scott v. Sandford was decided on March 7, 1857. Dred Scott was formally emancipated May 26, 1857, two and a half months later.

Scott would settle in St. Louis and take a job as a hotel porter, where the locals regarded him as a celebrity. Which he was. However, 16 months after his freedom was granted, Scott would die of tuberculosis at approximately age 59.

But Dred Scott would die a free man.

He is buried in St. Louis, and if you're ever at the Calvary Cemetery, and happen past it, local tradition is to place a Lincoln penny on the gravestone.

As for Calvin Chafee, he would not even attempt re-election; his seat would be filled by Charles Delano. However, after his term was over, he would become Librarian of the House of Representatives for two years, and then return home to Massachusetts to practice medicine.

No word on whether he stayed married to Irene Emerson.

No comments: