Why did Dred Scott sue the Emersons and John Sanford?

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The simple answer is that Dred Scott wanted freedom for himself and his wife, Harriet Robinson. They'd been legally married at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. But as they moved around from place to place, Dred and Harriet's...

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The simple answer is that Dred Scott wanted freedom for himself and his wife, Harriet Robinson. They'd been legally married at Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. But as they moved around from place to place, Dred and Harriet's status changed depending on where they lived.

There was a major principle at stake here. Some argued that it was absurd that someone could be free in one part of the country, but then suddenly become a slave once they crossed a state line. Indeed, some state courts had decided similar cases in the past according to the principle of "once free, always free," and Dred Scott's lawyers hoped to see that principle upheld by the US Supreme Court.

However, that didn't happen. In a ruling which has gone down in infamy, the Court, led by Chief Justice Taney, held that Dred Scott was still a slave, and so had no legal standing. Whatever status that Dred and Harriet had enjoyed in free territories such as Illinois and Wisconsin, they had always been slaves and were not therefore entitled to the same legal protection accorded to citizens. For good measure, the Court also struck down as unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise, which had been designed to halt the spread of slavery.

Dred and Harriet were subsequently given their freedom, but in wider political terms, the damage had already been done. Thanks to the Supreme Court's infamous ruling, the United States moved one step closer to all-out civil war.

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Dred Scott sued the Emerson family and John Sanford for his freedom. Dred Scott believed that since his master, John Emerson, had taken him to a free state, he should be a free man. Initially, Dred Scott won his case, but it was overturned. Thus, he had to take the case back to court. Eventually, John Emerson died. His new master was John Sanford, so he sued him for his freedom. Ultimately, the case ended up in the Supreme Court after Dred Scott lost the case. The Supreme Court also ruled against Dred Scott saying it didn’t matter where he was taken. Since he was considered property, his master could take him anywhere. Additionally, the Supreme Court said the case should never have been heard because Dred Scott didn’t have the right to sue. The Supreme Court went on to say that the Missouri Compromise was illegal because only states could outlaw slavery, not Congress.  This case was another example of the growing dispute between the North and the South in the 1850s over slavery.

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