A Brief History of the Arch Part IV: The Old Courthouse

In 1816 Auguste Chouteau and John Baptiste Lucas donated a plot of land along Fourth Street downtown to be used “forever as a courthouse.” Think about this: the city was founded in 1764, and it took them fifty plus years to realize that they needed lawyers. Construction on the first version of the courthouse was finished in 1828. The same architects who designed the Old Cathedral were commissioned to do this job, which explains why the same “Greek Revival” motif was used. These were the people who laid out the city’s grid design for its streets, with the numbered streets running north and south, and streets named after trees going east to west.

Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1821 under legislation that was called the Missouri Compromise. The law stipulated that Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, provided that Maine would become a free state. In addition, all territories purchased from Napoleon in 1803 (Louisiana Purchase) located north of the 36th parallel would be free states.

Statehood proved to be a boon to Saint Louis, so that by 1828, when the courthouse was finished, there was already need for more space. By 1839 ground was broken on a new building. In 1851 even this building had to be redesigned, leading to the current structure that was shaped like a cross. The cast iron dome, modeled after the one in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was finished in 1864. Most engineers were skeptical that the design would hold its weight, so the engineer in charge built a mini-replica of his dome and placed a load of several tons on it. Once he showed that the dome held, he was allowed to go ahead with construction. The interior murals were finished by Karl Ferdinand Wimar.

Slave auctions were commonly held on the footsteps of the courthouse. If you died and owed someone money, your slaves were sold at auction to pay your creditors. The last slave auction at our courthouse was held in 1861.

Although Missouri was a slave state, along with Kentucky the state refused to secede from the Union. This is why Lincoln was so grateful to the people of these states, and why, when he signed the emancipation proclamation in 1863, he excluded Missouri and Kentucky from having to free their slaves.
Once the dome was finished, the courthouse became the tallest building in the state, a distinction that it held until 1894. In 1940 it became part of the plan to memorialize Jefferson (The Jefferson National Memorial).

When the Civil Courts building was finished in the 1920’s judicial functions were moved to it. The Old Courthouse became a museum. It houses two courthouses, kept just as they were in the early 19th and 20th centuries.

The Old Courthouse is famous for two important cases: Virginia Minor sued for her right to vote in the 1870’s, and Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. I will give you a brief overview of the Dred Scott case, since a statue of Dred and Harriett Scott stands in front of the building.

Dred Scott was born in Virginia in the late 18th century. It’s not clear what his real name was; Dred is probably a shortened version. His owner was Peter Blow. The Blow family tried to make it as farmers in two states, but apparently they were not so good at it. In 1830 they came to Saint Louis, and they sold Scott to Dr. John Emerson, an Army surgeon. Scott apparently disliked Emerson. He tried to escape, twice, and was returned to his owner.

In 1836 Emerson was transferred to Illinois; in 1837 he was sent to what is now Minnesota in the Wisconsin territory. Here is where he met Harriett Robinson; they married shortly afterwards. Harriett’s owner transferred her to Dr. Emerson. I’m not sure if this was a sale, or if Harriett’s owner was just being nice and wanted the family to stay together.

Dr. Emerson came back to Saint Louis. By this time the Scotts had a child, Elizabeth, who was born in a riverboat halfway between a slave and a free state. The law in those days said that one could not own slaves in a free state, therefore the Scotts could have sued for their freedom while they were in either Illinois or Wisconsin. It’s not clear why they didn’t, but we must remember that most slaves were uneducated, and they faced difficult situations and prejudice even in free states. Maybe the Scotts opted for certainty over the unknowns of freedom.

Dr. Emerson died after his transfer to Saint Louis. His widow may have had financial worries, or maybe she didn’t need two slaves. The Scotts had two daughters who were fast reaching the age where they would have fetched a good price had they been sold. Harriett was besides herself with worry. She befriended an abolitionist minister at her place of worship. Somehow enough money was raised so that the Scotts could buy their freedom and that of their daughters.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, Dr. Emerson’s widow refused to let a Black person buy his freedom. She did say that if a White person had come forward with the money, and then the White person had granted these slaves their freedom, she would have been OK with this. One thing led to another: The Scotts decided, with their minister’s help, to sue for their freedom. Strangely enough, the Blow family, Scott’s original owners, had become abolitionists. They offered to pay for all legal expenses.

In 1846 Dred Scott sued for his freedom. The lawyers felt that there would be no need for Harriett to sue, since if Dred won precedent would be set for Harriett. The doctrine the lawyers invoked was called “Once free, always free.” There were dozens of prior instances that ruled in favor of slaves. The case was tried in 1847. Despite all the preceding cases, Scott lost his case. In 1850 he appealed; this time he won. Inexplicably, or again, maybe not so, the Emerson widow appealed.

I think that by this time there was too much at stake for the participants to try to reach an amicable agreement. Abolitionists wanted to make the Scott verdict apply to everyone who had traveled to a free state; slave owners were terrified that with one fell swoop they would lose significant assets, plus of course they saw this “loophole” as the first step on the road to total abolition of slavery.

The case went to the Missouri Supreme Court, where Scott lost. By this time the Blows had run out of money to finance the Scott trials, but other abolitionists took up the slack. In 1853 Scott sued for his freedom under Federal law. The Emerson widow had ceded title to Scott to a relative, John Sanford, who lived in New York. Because now there were two states involved, the lawyers felt that Federal law had to come into play.

The case was not decided by the US Supreme Court until 1857. The Scotts were placed in escrow in the meantime: they were hired out to anyone who needed a slave for the short term. In 1857 Chief Justice Taney signed the majority opinion (7-2) that said that Scott had to remain a slave. In the most shameful decision ever made by the Court, Taney decreed that no person of African ancestry had any rights; that even if they were free they could never be citizens or vote. He declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus destroying more than thirty years of precedent.

The slavery situation had been further muddied by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which said that these territories should be allowed to decide for themselves if they wanted to be admitted as slave or free states (This led to many, many people rushing to move to these territories, both pro and con slavery, and numerous armed conflicts where they attempted to exterminate each other).

Once Judge Taney issued his decree it was clear to abolitionists that no compromise over slavery would be possible. Civil War became unavoidable. Four years later cannons tried to settle what the pen failed to obtain.

After the trial Mr. Sanford granted Dred and Harriett their freedom anyway. Dred did not get to enjoy it for long. He died of tuberculosis in 1858. Harriett survived him for a long time; some of their descendants still live in Saint Louis.

President Lincoln abolished most slaves in 1863, and the 13th amendment was ratified in 1865. By then hundreds of thousands of American soldiers had needlessly died, and the country was left in ruins.

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  1. Cordell Webb

    Love reading the history of St. Louis stories. Thank you for posting them.

  2. Betty Townsend

    Very interesting. i didn’t know that it took so long to finally set them free. It was a very sad time for this country. Thanks for all your research. If i don’t get back before Christmas, have a wonderfilled Christmas.