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Profile: John Emerson
John Emerson was a participant or observer in the following events:
The US Supreme Court rules in Dred Scott v. Sandford that African-Americans are not citizens regardless of their status as free or slave, and therefore cannot sue for redress in federal courts. The Court also rules that Congress has no power to ban slavery in US territories, and that the rights of slaveowners are protected by the Fifth Amendment because slaves are categorized as property. The origins of the case date to 1833 when Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased Dred Scott, a slave, and moved him to a military base in Wisconsin. Slavery was banned in territories made free by the Missouri Compromise, and Wisconsin was one of these territories. However, Scott did not assert his freedom at that time. Instead, he lived in Wisconsin for four years, sometimes hiring himself out for work. In 1840, Scott moved with his family to Louisiana and then to St. Louis, Missouri, with Emerson. After Emerson died, Scott attempted to buy his family’s freedom from Emerson’s wife Eliza Irene Sanford, but was refused. (Sanford’s name was misspelled ‘Sandford’ in court documents.) Scott then sued Sanford in a state court, arguing that he and his family were free because they lived in a territory where slavery was illegal, and that he was owed back wages. A state court found in Scott’s favor in 1850, but Sanford’s brother John appealed the decision. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the original decision. Scott, alleging physical abuse, then sued John Sanford for damages in a federal court, but a jury disallowed Scott’s right to file a case in federal court. Scott appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court finds that it lacks jurisdiction to take the case because Scott is not a US citizen. Taney writes that Scott is “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves,” and, therefore, he is not a “member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution.” Taney also dismisses Scott’s assertion that his residence in a free state automatically grants him freedom and status as a US citizen, reasoning that states may choose to recognize the rights of freed slaves as citizens, but the federal government is under no obligation to do so. Lastly, the Court finds that, because slaves are property, Congress’s ban on slavery in the territories violates the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property rights. Justice Benjamin Curtis issues a powerful dissent to the Taney opinion. The Court’s decision will exacerbate tensions between Northern and Southern states, being widely seen as validating the South’s view of national power. It will also embolden pro-slavery Southerners and others to try to extend slavery into other areas of the nation, and will infuriate abolitionists, who will become powerful voices within the newly formed Republican Party. The three “Reconstruction Amendments”—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth (see February 26, 1869)—will render the Scott decision invalid. In modern times, all people born or naturalized in the US will be considered citizens who have the right to bring suit in federal court. [PBS, 12/2006]
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