Scott v. London (1806)

Introduction

Scott v. London was an 1806 Supreme Court decision involving a freedom suit brought by London, a man enslaved in the Virginia portion of the federal District of Columbia. The case stemmed from changes in the law and geography of American slavery following independence.  While New England states eliminated slavery entirely and New York and the mid-Atlantic states adopted plans for gradual emancipation, Virginia enacted laws aimed to restrict the slave trade and to reduce its Black population, reflecting the declining demand for enslaved labor in the Chesapeake tobacco economy and the fear of slave rebellion.

The state’s 1779 “act for preventing the farther importation of Slaves” declared that “no slave or slaves shall hereafter be imported into this commonwealth by sea or land,” with substantial fines for violators. An important exception was made for those arriving from other states who intended to become citizens of Virginia and who would swear an oath within ten days upon arriving that they were not bring slaves with the intent of “evading” the law against “further importation of slave,” and that no slave had “ben imported from Africa or any of the West India islands.”  In 1785, Virginia added another provision to the anti-importation law, stipulating that “slaves which shall hereafter be brought into this commonwealth, and kept therein one whole year together, or so long at different times as shall amount to one year, shall be free” unless the owner took the oath.  The act was further amended in 1789 to extend the period in which a person bringing slaves into Virginia could take the oath to sixty days.

In July 1802, Mr. Scott, the father of the man who would eventually be involved in the case, moved from Maryland to Alexandria, Virginia, bringing with him London and other enslaved people.  Mr. Scott died in December 1802, never having sworn the oath that would prevent his slaves from becoming free after a year in Virginia.  Scott’s son “got possession of the plaintiff [London]” in March 1803, and, while still a resident of Maryland, hired London out to labor in Alexandria.  Scott then arrived in Virginia from Maryland in June of 1803 and swore the oath that he was not attempting to “evade” the non-importation law on July 5.

London brought an action against Scott for assault and battery in a Virginia court to try his right to freedom.  The Virginia judge interpreted the statutes strictly by the letter.  Since the elder Mr. Scott had not taken the oath within sixty days after arriving in Virginia, London would be free after spending one year within the state.  That the younger Mr. Scott had subsequently taken ownership of London and sworn the oath with sixty days of his own arrival did not change London’s legal right to freedom after a year.  The instructions provided to the jury were simple: if London had been in Virginia for a year, it should recognize London’s freedom, which it did.

Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Chief Justice John Marshall reversed the jury in a decision that was favorable to Scott specifically and to the trade in enslaved people generally.  Marshall, himself a Virginian, was deeply involved in the slave trade himself and owned more than 100 people over the course of his life.  In his opinion, Marshall put aside any notion that Virginia’s anti-importation statutes could be read to advance liberty, and instead interpretated them to privilege slave owner’s right to property.  It was a mistake, Marshall argued, to view the statute as granting freedom to slaves and “forfeiting the property” of masters unless they swore the oath within sixty days.  Scott’s failure to take the oath had created “no right to freedom having vested in London.”   Instead, London remained a slave at the time the son Mr. Scott took possession of him and at the time Scott entered the state.  Because Scott took the oath within sixty days after arriving and before London had resided in Virginia for an entire year, London remained enslaved.

Constitutional Issues Raised in the Case

In the early Republic, Chief Justice John Marshall played the key role building the authority of the Supreme Court and its power of judicial review.  Although Scott v. London turned on an interpretation of Virginia law, it demonstrated how the structure of the Constitution and the power of the Supreme Court tilted American law in a pro-slavery direction.

Citation and Decision

Scott v. London, 7 U.S. (3 Cranch) 324 (1806) | Full Decision

The failure of an owner to follow the law regarding the importation of slaves into Virginia did not establish a right of freedom that could be enforced against a subsequent owner that did follow the law.

Discussion Questions

1. Why did Virginia seek to limit the importation of slaves into the state?

2. How did Marshall interpret the “spirit” of the law in a way that ran counter to the Virginia court’s interpretation of the “letter” of the law?

3. How might the decision have made it easier to import, buy, and sell slaves in Virginia?

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