The Old Courthouse

"The question is simply this: Can a [N]egro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?" This was the question, not at all simple, put before the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1857 in the landmark case Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Court answered "no," supporting the proslavery argument and intensifying the growing national conflict over the institution of slavery. In doing so, it went beyond the original question raised by the slave, Dred Scott, in the Old Courthouse located between Broadway and Fourth Street in St. Louis, Mo., on April 6, 1846. The question, when it was first heard, was more straightforward: Can a slave who spent substantial time outside the jurisdiction of slavery claim freedom? The case that began in St. Louis's Old Courthouse ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, with a decision that shook the nation and helped to bring on the Civil War.

Although it is best known as the court before which Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, argued for their freedom, the Old Courthouse, as it was called even then, had already played a pivotal role in St. Louis history. Here, city offices—once scattered throughout the community in a church, a tavern, and a fort—were brought together, allowing for a more centralized urban administration. As the city became a major trading center, the courthouse was expanded so that its original building became a wing of the new, larger structure. It was in its old west wing that the first Dred Scott trial was held.

Scott was born a slave in Virginia about 1799. He was the property of Peter Blow. When the Blow family relocated to St. Louis in 1830, they brought Dred Scott with them. Shortly after the move, economic pressures forced the family to sell some of its property, including Dred Scott. That sale changed Scott's life, as sales often did for those bound in slavery. He became the property of a military surgeon, John Emerson, who was soon transferred to a military post at Rock Island, Ill. He took Scott with him, and they lived in Illinois until the spring of 1836. Then another military transfer brought master and slave to Fort Snelling, on the west bank of the Mississippi River in the Wisconsin Territory, now Minnesota.

Before year's end, Dr. Emerson purchased a female slave, Harriet Robinson, from a local justice of the peace, and soon after, he consented to her marriage to Scott. The couple lived in free territories until Emerson was transferred to Florida, at which time the Scotts returned to Missouri with Emerson's wife. By then, Harriet had given birth to a daughter, Eliza. In Missouri, she had a second daughter, Lizzie. Under prevailing law, both the children were slaves, having been born to a slave woman.

When Emerson died in 1843, Scott attempted to purchase his freedom from Emerson's widow, but she refused. Instead she hired the Scotts out to work for others, who paid her for their services. Finally, Scott sought freedom for himself and his family through the courts. He was encouraged by his minister, John Anderson, and his case was financed by his former masters, the Blow family. The Scotts' attorney claimed that, as Dred and Harriet had lived for years in free territory, they and their children had the right to freedom. There was precedent for this argument. At the time, Missouri courts recognized a policy of "once free, always free," and in similar cases, other slaves had attained their freedom using this argument. The case came to trial in June 1847 and was heard in the first-floor, west-wing courtroom of St. Louis's Old Courthouse. The Scotts lost their case on a technicality, but were granted a second trial in 1850, held in the same courtroom. This time the jury granted the Scotts their freedom. Unfortunately, however, this was not the end of their struggle.

By the mid-1840s, when a slave successfully sued for his freedom, it was viewed by most in the South as a dangerous attack on the institution of slavery that had come to define the South and its way of life. Having lost at the local level, there was pressure on Mrs. Emerson to appeal her case, retain her slave, and safeguard slavery from these kinds of freedom suits. Her appeal was successful. The case moved beyond the Old Courthouse to the Missouri Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court decision, arguing that "times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made." The court ordered that the Scotts be re-enslaved. Ironically, Scott had lost on another technicality.

Dred and Harriet were not ready to relinquish the freedom that had seemed so close at hand. Their case attracted the attention of the antislavery movement, and a team of abolitionist lawyers took action on Scott's behalf. The team filed suit in St. Louis Federal Court in 1854 against John F.A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother, who acted for her estate. (John Sanford's name was misspelled in the Supreme Court records, and the case has been know since as Scott v. Sandford.) As Sanford was a resident of New York, the case could be moved out of the Missouri court system and heard by the federal courts. The trial took place not in the Old Courthouse but in the Papin Building, near St. Louis's present-day Gateway Arch. The court decided in favor of Sanford, prompting Dred Scott and his team of lawyers to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dred Scott's legal drama, begun in the Old Courthouse, was a significant part of a much larger national debate, older than the country and dangerous to the Union. Although the Founding Fathers never specifically mentioned slavery in the Constitution, the shadow of that institution hung heavily over the proceedings that brought the document to life.

The 13 British colonies and all the original states in the Union had sanctioned slavery, but, starting with Vermont in 1777, most northern states set about abolishing the institution in the decades after the Revolution. The Georgia and South Carolina representatives at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, however, flatly refused to be a part of any national union that denied protection to slavery. Although South Carolina's representative, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, did not get the explicit constitutional guarantees protecting slavery that he demanded, representatives from more moderate southern states, such as Virginia's George Mason, agreed that the federal government should not hinder the maintenance and growth of slavery. Even most northern representatives believed that the Constitution needed to protect slaveholders' right to their human property and thus prohibited Congress from interfering with the importation of slaves into the country for at least 20 years after the passage of the Constitution.

By the time Dred Scott stood before the St. Louis court, there were more than three million slaves in the United States, and slavery was an important and well-established institution in America life. Even as slavery dwindled in state after state in the North, the institution expanded in the South. It became critical to the southern economy and so significant nationally that the entire country felt its power. Cotton, the major slave crop, played a large role in America's foreign trade. By 1840, it was, in fact, more valuable than all the nation's other exports combined. And the value of the slave population was a major part of the national wealth, greater in value than all of America's banks, railroads, and factories put together. Thus, when Dred Scott asked that the court grant freedom for himself and his family, his request might well have been seen as a threat to an important economic foundation of the nation.

Any challenge to slaveholding in the South was further complicated by the rise of the militant abolition movement then causing a great stir in many regions of the North. The white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the radical newspaper The Liberator, joined forces with black abolitionists to attack slavery and lobby the North on behalf of freedom. Although most white people in the northern states were not ready to support the antislavery argument, a few legislatures—Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, for example—passed regulations in the 1840s, called personal liberties laws, prohibiting state officials or facilities from participating in the enforcement of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, under which slaveholders attempted to recapture their property.

Missouri was a part of this debate even before it became a part of the United States. It entered the nation in 1821 as the 12th slave state, balancing the previous year's admission of Maine, the 12th free state. Slavery was central to the state's economy and to that of its major city of St. Louis, where slave trading was big business and slave auctions were sometimes conducted from the front steps of the Old Courthouse. Often these sales were conducted to settle slaveholder estates or to pay debts and fulfill business contracts between local merchants. For the Scotts, as for slaves generally, the courthouse was not simply a hall of legal justice.

By the mid-19th century, the increasing hostility between abolitionist and proslavery activists had become a national concern that some in the Congress hoped to cool with the passage of major compromise legislation. The Compromise of 1850, as the series of bills was called, offered the antislavery advocates the admission of California as the 16th free state and the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. To slavery's supporters, the Congress offered a new, stricter fugitive slave law that did not give an accused fugitive the right of legal counsel, a jury trial, or even the right to speak in self-defense. The new law also required all citizens to assist in the capture of fugitives on penalty of fine and arrest. Black and white abolitionists vowed to resist this law at all costs, and President Millard Fillmore, bent on showing resolve to the South, vowed to enforce it.

Meanwhile, Kansas erupted. In 1854, Congress passed legislation that allowed the fate of slavery in that territory to be decided by the will of a majority of its settlers. Almost immediately, friction became hostility that gave way to open warfare as proslavery forces and abolitionists rushed to claim political control of the territory. The violence of "Bleeding Kansas" spilled over into northern cities where abolitionists fought to protect fugitive slaves, and even into the hall of Congress, where Preston Brookes, a proslavery South Carolina congressman attacked Massachusetts antislavery Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber. Sumner had derided an elderly senator from South Carolina, a relative of Brookes, for his support of the proslavery forces in Kansas. Brookes' attack on Sumner was a part of the sectional violence and, because it occurred on the floor of the U.S. Senate, it shocked the nation. By the mid-1850s, America seemed to be moving toward a major confrontation between pro- and antislavery forces. It was in this atmosphere that Dred Scott and his lawyers came before the U.S. Supreme Court to make their argument.

In 1857, when the high court considered Scott's case, five of its nine justices, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, were sons of the South. Two of the northern judges were strong advocates of states' rights policies that favored the South, and a third was on record as being proslavery. Only the remaining northern judge was opposed to slavery. In the political heat of the era, the Court's findings took on immense political significance. It went far beyond ruling on the freedom of one African-American family. On March 6, 1857, 80-year-old Justice Taney read aloud the lengthy majority opinion in the Dred Scott case. Seven of the nine justices—all of the southerners and two of the northerners—agreed that Dred Scott should remain a slave, but the majority opinion did not stop there. The Court also ruled that, as a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no right to bring suit and "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." In a direct slap at the new Republican Party, established in 1854, and its free soil platform, which declared the party's opposition to the expansion of slavery into the free territories, the Court argued that the federal government had no right to prohibit slavery in the western territories. This judgment was a central point of contention in the political powder keg of the 1850s.

The Dred Scott decision had, by the late 1850s, moved the country to the brink of civil war. Dred Scott did not live to see the war that finally ended slavery. He and his family were freed in the spring of 1857, after Mrs. Emerson remarried, this time to an antislavery congressman. A year later, on September 17, 1858, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis and was buried in St. Louis.

James Oliver Horton is the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University, director of the Center for Public History and Public Culture, and recipient of the "Living Legend Award" from the Afro-American Museum of Boston. This excerpt from Landmarks of African-American History is published with permission of Oxford University Press.


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American Educator, Fall 2005