St. Louis was one of the first stops on our cross country road trip this summer. When we went to purchase tickets at the courthouse to go up the St. Louis Arch, I was pleasantly surprised by the historical exhibits on the Dred Scott court case, which had originated in the very same St. Louis courthouse.
In 1846, Harriet and Dred Scott each filed petitions with the St. Louis circuit court to sue for their freedom, as they had traveled and lived in parts of the United States where slavery had been abolished. The series of court cases took over a decade, when a decision was rendered by the United States Supreme Court in 1857.
Chief Justice Roger Taney, writing for the court majority, infamously remarked that even a free black person, “whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a “citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.” Therefore, he concluded, Dred Scott did not even have the right to bring the case, much less to demand his freedom (Harriet’s case had been dropped, and any decision rendered to her husband would apply also to her).
The case, Scott v. Sandford, is one of the most well-known cases in United States history. It rendered obsolete the Missouri Compromise that had outlawed slavery in some territories of the United States, and arguably played a significant role in paving the way to the Civil War – which concluded with the adoption of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment extending citizenship to all persons regardless of their race, and the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote for all citizens (lest I fall subject to criticisms of historical naïveté, it’s important to note that these amendments have been interpreted narrowly and have had far less impact than a historical reading would suggest – but the significance of upending and overturning the Scott decision is far from trivial).
Although Harriet and Dred were separately granted their freedom around the time the decision was rendered (the woman who enslaved and profited from them had married an abolitionist politician from New England who feared the public backlash), it’s difficult to imagine the pain they endured before and during the years of the trial, as white lawyers debated their humanity. Yet, despite this, their contributions to the struggle for liberation in the United States have been immeasurable, surely greater than they ever imagined or themselves enjoyed.
Today, Harriet and Dred Scott are remembered in exhibits like the one in St. Louis, and in statues like the one pictured above, standing in front of one of the same courthouses that once denied them their basic humanity.