Established in 1935, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is located in St. Louis near the point where Lewis and Clark embarked on their expedition in 1804. The park commemorates important aspects of American history including the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States, westward expansion into the newly acquired territory, and issues related to slavery brought to the fore by the Dred Scott case. There is much to explore here, and it can take a day to see it all: The Gateway Arch, Museum of Westward Expansion, and the Old Courthouse.
|The Old Courthouse. Scaffolding is in place for needed renovations.|
|Dred Scott was not famous until the end of his life.|
The first was the Dred Scott case in 1846. It serves as a dramatic example of when courts get it wrong. Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom because he had been held in bondage in a location where slavery was outlawed. His master had taken him across the river to Illinois where slavery was forbidden. At that time it was often the case that a slave became free when his master took him into free territory. In 1850 the court ruled in Scott’s favor, but his owner appealed the decision. The State Supreme Court then found for the slaveholder. Chief Justice William Scott (no relative of Dred Scott) reversed the lower court ruling and stated that Scott would always be a slave. Dred Scott then appealed his case to the Supreme Court of the United States. In a shocking decision, Justice Roger B. Taney stated that slaves could not be considered citizens so they could not sue for their freedom. He went on to say that slaves were nothing more than property that can be freely bought and sold. This ruling hastened the outbreak of the American Civil War. At its conclusion, slavery in the United States was banished.
|This plexiglass model shows both the Old Courthouse as it stands today after many renovations and also its original structure. Look closely and you can see the older building in brown.|
|Virginia Minor was a leader in the Missouri suffragette movement.|
A second significant trial begun in the Old Courthouse also ended up in the US Supreme Court. And again, the courts got it wrong. In 1872, Virginia Minor was a Missouri citizen who helped found the women’s suffrage movement there. When she attempted to register to vote, she was denied. Using the 14th Amendment as the basis of her claim, Mrs. Minor sued. She argued that women were guaranteed citizenship and voting rights. Both the lower court and the State Supreme Court ruled against her. Mrs. Minor then took her case to the US Supreme Court. In 1874 the court unanimously ruled that “all citizens of the United States were not invested with the right of suffrage …” and that “the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone …” The court went on to rule that individual states have the right to decide who can and cannot vote in elections held within state borders. It was not until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified granting women the right to vote. It is a right that should be taken seriously. It is also a responsibility that citizens should act upon.
Both Dred Scott and Virginia Minor bravely fought for the rights of Americans. Their cases nudged America forward and helped redefine both citizenship and civil rights. Today all Americans should appreciate these hard fought and hard won battles.