Dred Scott, John San(d)Ford, and the Case for Collusion
39 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2012 Last revised: 14 Feb 2015
Date Written: December 2, 2012
Dred Scott profoundly changed American history. Intended to protect slavery, its unforeseen consequences were the election of Abraham Lincoln, the political destruction of Stephen Douglas, and the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. It was also the Court's first interpretation of freedom of speech and assembly, of the right to arms, and of substantive due process.
This article explores the degree to which Dred Scott was collusive -- not in the sense of both sides desiring the same outcome, but in the sense of them manufacturing a false case which each thought they could win. The defendant was John F. A. Sanford, a New York businessman who had no claim to being the Scott family's slaveholder, but who nonetheless stipulated to being such. The real slaveholder was his sister Irene, whom the Scotts initially sued in State court. When the Federal suit was brought, her name was likely omitted, and Sanford substituted, because its known destination was the Supreme Court...and Irene was now married to Calvin Chaffee, a member of the House of Representatives, and a prominent opponent of slavery. Immediately after the decision was handed down, the Chaffees' role was exposed by the pro-slavery press and a public relations battle ensured, ending with their arranging for the Scott family's manumission.
Why the pro-slavery side would have colluded is not hard to understand: given the composition of the Court, they were the likely winners. The motive for Scott's attorneys' collusion is harder to discern. His trial court attorney seems to have thought it worth the gamble because a win would enable sidestepping of the Fugitive Slave Act, a major gain given its almost-complete due process deprivations, while a loss would do limited harm -- the attack on the Missouri Compromise and on Congressional power over slavery in the territories was not an issue at the trial court level. Scott's attorney in the Supreme Court did face that issue, but had never been informed that the defendant had no real standing in the case.
Keywords: Dred Scott, slavery, constitutional history, Lincoln, abolitionism
JEL Classification: K10, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation