March/April 2007 issue

Dred Scott Display by 8th Circuit Library

by Joan Voelker, Archives Librarian

The U.S. Courts Library 8th Circuit has prepared a display and booklet commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision. In six panels of photographs, illustrations, maps, and text, the exhibit outlines the chronology of Dred Scotts freedom suit during its 11 years in the state and federal courts and conveys the impact of this 1857 landmark decision on the nation.

The March 6, 1857 decision of Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, authored by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, is considered by some legal scholars to be the worst ever rendered by the Supreme Court. According to scholars, Taney ignored precedent, the Constitution, and history as he crafted the opinion to settle the issue of slavery and the question of African American citizenship in a pro-slavery, pro-South decision. The court ruled that:

African Americans could not become citizens of the United States and therefore, could not sue in federal court
Dred Scott's residence in a free state did not free him
the Missouri Compromise Act was unconstitutional and void
Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the territories

The Dred Scott decision intensified the conflict growing in a country where slavery was legal in the South and illegal in the North. Today the case is considered by experts to have contributed to the eruption of the American Civil War in 1861.

This case has additional importance for the 8th Circuit because the case originated here. Scott's travels from St. Louis to Illinois and to Fort Snelling in Minnesota were the basis of his freedom suit, and his suit was filed in St. Louis. After running its course through the Missouri state courts, the case was filed in federal court with the United States Circuit Court for the District of Missouri on the basis of diversity of citizenship.

The federal court trial of Scott v. Sandford (Sanford was misspelled in the case filing) took place on May 15, 1854, in St. Louis. Federal District of Missouri Judge Robert W. Wells presided over the case. Among the display images are those of each building in which the case was heard, the docket entry for the federal trial case, Judge Wells, and the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices.

This exhibit was on display in the St. Louis library in March. Duplicate copies are now on display in both the Fargo and Minneapolis courthouses. The display in Minneapolis will travel to St. Pauls Landmark Center, a former federal courthouse, where the Federal Bar Association will hold an event commemorating the Dred Scott decision anniversary on June 13. The display will travel to additional courthouses in the circuit and to the African-American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa in Cedar Rapids.