The Old Courthouse
Part of the Federal Park in

St. Louis, MO

April 10th, 2000

The federal parks monument along the Mississippi river bank in St. Louis displays its most prestigious and towering arch for all to see and admire, and no one should pass by without stopping to admire this marvel of engineering and architecture. But once done, there are other things seemingly less impressive within the park boundaries that are noteworthy to the wondering tourist looking for a bit of history. Within the shadow of the magnificent arch structure stand a lone building simply called the "Old Courthouse" This stoic building first built in 1816 and rebuilt several times over is now a museum. Its four floors and rotunda are open to the public for self guided exploration as well as guided tours. Just standing in the center of the ground floor and looking up was worth the trip across the busy street. The woodwork is marvelous, the rotunda is beautifully decorated to accent the 4 large paintings displayed just below it. As I walked up the stairs and around the circular halls of the various floors I was taken on a history of the building in picture and placard, all arranged on the inner walls at eye level for me to see as I walked by. This is the building that saw the beginning of the infamous case that culminated in the U. S. Supreme Courts Opinion, historically known as "The Dred Scott Decision". A decision that is credited by many as having careened the country on an irreversible course into Civil War. This case started in 1846, after the Missouri Compromise established among other things a relationship between free and slave states as they attempted to join the Union. Although officially a "slave" state, Missouri lacked the labor intensified farming so common in the south. As such slavery was less structured and many slaves found a modified form of freedom on the St. Louis streets. Several in the past had, on occasion, sued the state for their freedom and had won. So it was in April of 1846 that the St Louis slaves Dred and Harriet Scott hoped that the doors of liberty would be opened to them when they asked for their freedom in the St. Louis, "Old Courthouse". Times were changing however. Northern and Southern views of slavery had pulled further apart and new territories in the West added to the conflict as each area decided whether or not to allow slavery. While northern abolitionists fought slavery, some southerners began to defend it as a good rather then evil institution. This first of many trials that stretched over an 11 year period was denied on a technicality with the court permitting the filing for a new trial. The next trial, held in July of 1850 at the Old Courthouse was a victory for the Scotts. The jury said that they were free. But the lawyer representing the Scott's owner, Mrs. Emerson, asked the Missouri Supreme Court to reverse this decision. At about this time, Mrs. Emerson married Dr. Calvin Chaffee, a Massachusetts congressman and abolitionist and turned her personal business over to her brother John F. A. Sanford. On March 22 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling and returned the Scotts to slavery. The decision reflected the changed mood of the South toward slavery and states rights. The case was sent on to the U.S. Supreme Court and on March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the "Dred Scott Decision". Taney tried to address the national issues of slavery and states rights in a way which would calm the country. Instead, the court's decision steered the country toward disunion and civil war. Taney's opinion held that the Scotts were still salves because blacks were not citizens of the United Stated with the rights to sue in the federal count, The decision further declared that slaves were property protected by the constitution. Judge Taney concluded that the Scotts had never been free even when living in free territories, therefore the Missouri Compromise was in fact, invalid. The decision had a charging effect all across the nation, as blacks, who had won their freedom in northern states found themselves legally re-enslaved under the ownership of their previous southern masters. Southern slave owners cheered and northern abolitionists ranted as the country pulled itself apart over this decision. The final decision was to have far more impact on the nation then the Scotts, who were shortly there after unceremoniously given their freedom by their owner. It all started right here in this building, in the chambers off to the side of the encircling halls. It stands today as another piece of the American puzzle, forever preserved by the Federal Parks Service in an area historically known as the gateway to the West.

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