The Old Courthouse, built between 1839 and 1862 is the site where an enslaved husband and wife, Dred and Harriet Scott, sued for their freedom.
The story behind the history:
Dred Scott was a slave who was taken by his master, an officer in the U.S. Army, from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and then to the free territory of Wisconsin. He lived on free soil for a long period of time.
When the Army ordered his master to go back to Missouri, he took Scott with him back to that slave state, where his master died. In 1846, Scott was helped by Abolitionist lawyers to sue for his freedom in court, claiming he should be free since he had lived on free soil for a long time. Although in 1850 in a trial held in the “Old Courthouse”, Dred Scott and his wife were granted their freedom, this verdict was appealed by their master’s widow. In 1852 this decision was overturned by the Missouri Supreme court in a hearing also held in St. Louis. The Scotts then filed a case in Federal Court which ultimately resulted in a ruling that declared:
1. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, African-Americans were not considered to be citizens, thus Dred Scott had no right to sue in court.
2. Residence in Wisconsin Territory had no effect on Dred Scott’s status because the Missouri Compromise was invalid. Congress had no power to pass laws that limited slavery, because the right of property in a slave was guaranteed by the Constitution.
Scott and his wife were later given back to his original owner who granted them their freedom in 1857. Dred Scott died a year later from tuberculosis.