Historians point to the landmark decision Dred Scott v. Sanford of 1857 as a major factor leading to the American Civil War. That case established slaves as property that could not be taken away from their masters without due process. But a U.S. Supreme Court case 20 years earlier involving the importation of slaves anticipated this finding and was also written by Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who authored the subsequent Dred Scott decision.
The earlier case known as the United States vs. William Skiddy involved a slave returning to New Orleans from France and the seizure of the ship Garonne. The seizure was based on a statute that "prohibited the introduction of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first of January 1808."
The facts of the case were undisputed. In November, 1835, the ship Garonne arrived from France with a female named Priscilla, who had been born a slave in Louisiana. Priscilla was returning to New Orleans with her mistress and was traveling on a passport issued to Priscilla that stipulated that she was a slave.
The Garonne was seized based on a federal statute that stipulated "it shall not be lawful to import or bring in any manner into the United States or territories thereof, from any foreign kingdom, place or country, any negro, mulatto or person of color with intent to hold, sell or dispose of such negro, mulatto or person of color as a slave or to be held to service or labor."
And the issue was not an isolated case. Similar actions were brought against the ship Fortune which also had returning slaves aboard. The U.S. Supreme Court examined both incidents in January, 1837.
Questions of law included: Was the slave Priscilla freed when she arrived in France according to French law? If so, was William Skiddy (captain of the Garonne) then breaking the law by returning her to the U.S. and reintroducing her into slavery? If this point of law was upheld, both the Garonne and Fortune were subject to seizure.
Chief Justice Taney set forth a legal argument that he would echo 20 years later in the Dred Scott decision. Chief Justice Taney declared that the question of "whether the laws of France gave the girl a right to her freedom upon the introduction into that country . . . is not material to the decision."
He ruled that the return of Priscilla "was not the importation of a slave into the United States; and consequently, does not subject the vessel to forfeiture." The decision also stipulated "that there is nothing in the act of congress under these proceedings were and, to prevent her mistress from bringing or sending her back to her place of residence; and continuing to hold her as before, in service."
The decision, while granting owners the right to transport their slaves with them, did not have the national impact of the subsequent Dred Scott v. Sanford decision. That case involved Dred Scott, a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri. Scott had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom.
Chief Justice Taney's ruling in the Dred Scott case held that Congress had no authority to prohibit masters from taking their slaves in federal territories designated as "free" because slaves were personal property and the fifth amendment to the Constitution protects property owners against deprivation of their property without due process of law. With the Dred Scott decision, the Chief Justice set aside a major compromise in the slavery debate and helped set the stage for the election of Abraham Lincoln.