March/April 2012
“Freedom and The Courts"

On April 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals en banc courtroom on the 28th floor of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse was filled with 167 attorneys and laypeople to hear the lecture, “Freedom and The Courts.” Three distinguished speakers addressed the Dred and Harriet Scott cases and other 19th century freedom suits. The Dred Scott case is of course the most famous freedom suit. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) was a precipitating cause of the American Civil War.

The case began on April 6, 1846, when Dred Scott, an African American slave, sued for his freedom in Missouri state court. The case ended in the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous landmark ruling on March 6, 1857, declaring that not only could Scott not be freed but that African Americans could not become citizens of the United States and therefore, could not sue in federal court. The decision also ruled that the Missouri Compromise Act was unconstitutional and void and that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the territories.

Lynne M. Jackson, President and Founder of the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and great-great granddaughter of Dred and Harriet Scott, gave the opening remarks.

Circuit Judge Duane Benton, once a judge on the Missouri Supreme Court, analyzed that court’s 1852 decision in Scott v. Emerson. He said that the court ignored a long-standing precedent when it ruled that Scott could not be freed, despite having lived a time with his master at Fort Snelling in what is now Minnesota, where slavery was prohibited. “As modern judges are wont to say, there was no funeral and no decent burial of that precedent,” Judge Benton said. He also said that the Missouri Supreme Court judges ignored the will of the legislature and based their decision on their personal biases.

Robert Moore, PhD., Historian at the Old Courthouse, highlighted the struggles of persons of color within the St. Louis court system to gain their freedom during the 19th century. He spoke of slave suits for freedom, emancipations, freedom licenses, and underground railroad activity as revealed in court documents, newspaper reports, and memoirs of the period.

“Freedom and The Courts” was jointly sponsored by the U.S. Court of Appeals, the District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, and The Judicial Learning Center. The program was held in conjunction with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History exhibition “Free at Last: A History of the Abolition of Slavery in America,” on display on the third floor of the Eagleton Courthouse from March 19 - April 20, 2012. A complimentary exhibit, “The Dred Scott Decision,” created by the U.S. Courts Library, was on display during this time period on the 28th floor.