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Opinion

Another anniversary for the overlooked Mrs. Dred Scott

April 6 marks a key date in one of the most divisive cases in the US Supreme Court's history. The Dred Scott vs. Sanford ruling led the nation into the Civil War. Dred’s name remains well known. Lost is the story of his wife, Harriet, whose cause gives the case its greater meaning.

By Lea VanderVelde / April 6, 2012

Mike Everman examines St. Louis Circuit Court documents from 1828 in St. Louis Jan. 11. The Missouri State Archives worked with the St. Louis Circuit Court and Washington University to put 170 pages of the original Dred Scott documents from the 1840s on a Web site. Op-ed contributor Lea Vandervelde argues Americans should honor Dred Scott's wife, Harriet, for lighting 'the spark for profound constitutional reform.'

Kevin Manning/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

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Iowa City, Iowa

Today, April 6, marks an anniversary of the legal filing that became one of the most divisive cases in the history of the US Supreme Court. Controversy over recent court debates – Obamacare or strip searches, for instance – pale in comparison.

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The case in question is Dred Scott vs. Sanford, which many historians credit with the ruling that sent the nation reeling into the Civil War. With the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court determined that African-Americans were inherently slaves. Dred’s name remains well known today. Lost, though, is the story of his wife, Harriet, a common woman of considerable gumption, who was devoted to her family and whose commitment gives the case its greater meaning.

Americans owe her recognition and respect for her perseverance in the 11-year court battle that lit the spark for profound constitutional reform. She should be considered a Founding Mother, as her desire to give freedom to her daughters eventually led to freedom for so many Americans. Her example should instruct the hearts of freedom-lovers today.

American history is filled with women who played important roles, and then all but disappeared from view. That was already true for Harriet not long after the court’s decision was handed down in 1857. Yet it was her grievance that fomented constitutional uproar.

Americans found it easier to imagine Dred as a single protagonist, a man in chains suing his plantation boss, when in fact, some would argue he was a relatively free, aging, domestic servant on the urban frontier. Harriet and her children were soon swept aside in the public debate over the case.

Few know that the impetus behind the court’s much-debated decision was a family that wanted nothing more than to lead a stable, quiet life and raise their daughters as free people. The family sought judicial protection to protect them from the oppression of private slave owners who could control their lives.

Those values would eventually lead Harriet and her husband to the United States Supreme Court. But their legal battle began on April 6, 1846. On that day, both Dred and Harriet Scott filed petitions in the St. Louis County Circuit Court alleging that their residence in a free state and territory set them free.

What we know is that Harriet Robinson and Etheldred “Dred” Scott met at Fort Snelling in what is now St. Paul, Minn. in the summer of 1836 – then the isolated margin of free territory. Dred’s master was the fort's doctor; Harriet’s was the government agent to the Dakota nation.

The Scotts' living circumstances on the edge of the northern wilderness were very different from those of slaves in the plantation South. They were not chained or shackled. There is no evidence they were beaten. They were free to come and go as long as they got their work done, and no overseer watched their every move. They were constrained mostly by the isolation of the northern settlement, located so far from the next fort.

They married and over the coming years traveled to Missouri and back to Fort Snelling before settling permanently in St. Louis in 1840. There, Harriet worked as a washerwoman and Dred at odd jobs as they raised their daughters, Eliza and Lizzie. But in 1846, after six years in St. Louis and a brief sojourn by Dred to the theater of the Mexican-American war, the Scotts sued for their freedom and started the legal process that would lead to the Supreme Court.

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