Dred Scott & The Arc of Justice


As a trucker, I’m always driving by interesting places. Sometimes I get to stop and visit. Recently, I visited the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Across the street from the arch, on Dred Scott Way is the Old Courthouse. Hence, you can guess what famous case was heard here. I decided that I would stop and explore the court on my next visit with spare time. That day came last week. I was not disappointed.

The Old Courthouse in St. Louis from the Gateway Arch.
The Old Courthouse from The Gateway Arch.

Dred Scott was born into slavery. Originally, he was owned by the family of Peter Blow. Remember that name. The Blow family moved to St. Louis, where Dred was sold to the Emerson family. Dr. John Emmerson was an Army surgeon. Hence, he moved around a lot.

The groundwork for the Dred Scott case.

Emerson moved Scott to the free state of Illinois. Later, they moved to the free Territory of Wisconsin (present day Minnesota). Slavery was illegal in both of these territories. Therefore, Dred Scott should have been recognized as a free man. Furthermore, in Wisconsin he married Harriet Robinson in a formal ceremony. Since slave marriages weren’t legally recognized, this implies that he was being treated as a free man.

Dred Scott statue, Old Courthouse, St. Louis
Dred and Harriet Scott

In 1843, Dr. Emerson died. The Scotts were inherited by his widow, Irene Harrison. In 1846, the Scotts attempted to purchase their freedom. However, their offer of $300 was declined. Hence, the Scott’s filed suit.

The Dred Scott Case

In 1850 in this very Courthouse, a jury freed Dred Scott. The ruling was based on the principle of “Once free, always free”. Since Scott had resided in a free state for a prolonged period, he was now free. However, his freedom was short lived.

Dred Scott exhibit, Old Courthouse, St. Louis
Exhibit in the courtroom where the trial took place.

Irene Emerson appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. In 1852, they overturned the lower court decision. Scott was once again a slave.

Dred Scott files federal suit.

After her victory, Irene moved to Massachusetts. She transferred ownership of the Scotts to her brother, John Sanford. Dred Scott once again filed suit. However, this time he filed under federal law. Unfortunately, he lost this suit also. Hence, he appealed to the Supreme Court. There, Chief Justice Taney ruled that any person descended from Africans, slave or free, was not a citizen. Therefore, they lacked standing to sue in federal court.

Old Courthouse, St. Louis Missouri
Property auctions on the courthouse steps included the sale of slaves.

This could have been the end of the line for Dred Scott. Typically, a Supreme Court decision seals fate. However, following the ruling Irene was informed that the Scotts were still her property. By this time, she had married Calvin Chaffee, a New England abolitionist. Political pressure forced the couple to do something.

Free at last!

The Blow family (remember that name?) had turned against slavery. Moreover, they had funded a large portion of the Dred Scott legal battle. Thus, to dissolve the political tensions, the Chaffee family sold the Scotts back to the Blow family. On May 26, 1857, in the courtroom pictured below, the Blow family manumitted the Scotts.

Dred Scott courtroom, Old Courthouse, St. Louis
Free at last!

Let’s not fool ourselves. This wasn’t justice. The action of the Blow family, albeit proper, didn’t absolveour country of it’s wrongs. Furthermore, freedom would once again be short lived for Dred Scott. He died 18 months later of tuberculosis. A civil war would be fought to free the slaves. The 14th Amendment was ratified to give citizenship to the freed slaves. Still, this was not justice for people like Dred and Harriet, who wouldn’t live to see it.

The arc of the moral Universe.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

My trip to the Old Courthouse in St. Louis was a sort of spiritual experience. I learned the details of the story, taking them in with mixed emotions. I felt ashamed of what our country once did. However, I felt proud of the redemptive qualities displayed by the blow family. Mostly, I tried to imagine the joy felt by Dred Scott upon finally realizing freedom. I could not.

Hence, I did what little I could do. I stood out in front of the courthouse and gazed up at the street sign. It read “Dred Scott Way”. I snapped this picture.

Dred Scott Way, St. Louis Missouri
Dred Scott Way

Dred Scott could not have seen this coming. The arc of the moral universe is too long for him to imagine this. However, it does indeed bend towards justice. To me, this will always be the image that captures where they intersect.

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