Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 30
Missouri Changes Its Course

IN MARCH OF 1852, a year after David Hall’s death, the Missouri Supreme Court decided the case and revoked the Scotts’ freedom, reversing its own precedent, which had endured almost half a century. The Scotts had believed themselves free for more than two years, relying on that longstanding precedent. Now the state high court changed the rules. It would no longer honor the Missouri Compromise in its courts, to recognize residence in free territory as grounds for freedom in Missouri.

The three judges split their decision two to one. Only Justice Gamble, from St. Louis, dissented. Justice Ryland, who had previously pledged to dissent, if it came to it, changed his mind and cast the critical vote to reverse precedent. The third justice, William Scott, from the rural counties, wrote the opinion, couching it in terms of the dignity of the states as entities rather than the dignity of peoples or individuals. A slave state’s dignity as a sovereign was impaired when other law transgressed its boundaries, the court reasoned. If a slave state was required to recognize those slaves who had entered free states as having attained freedom, the slave state’s sovereignty was violated. The majority cast the issue as maintaining state integrity against external forces of confiscation: “It is a humiliating spectacle, to see the courts of a State confiscating the property of her own citizens by the command of a foreign law.”1 By labeling the law of other states as “foreign,” the Missouri Supreme Court blatantly ignored the principles of judicial comity: that states respect each others’ laws and recognize their judgments. “If Scott is freed, by what means will it be effected, but by the Constitution of the State of Illinois, or the territorial laws of the United States? … Are not those governments capable of enforcing their own laws; and if they are not, are we concerned that such laws should be enforced, and that, too, at the cost of our own citizens?”2

The court viewed a law that could transform a slave’s status as harmful to the interests of Missouri citizens as property holders, despite the fact that with Mrs.

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