The Civil War in Missouri

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Dred Scott

Oil on canvas, painting by Louis Schultze, ca. 1888, after an original photograph taken ca. 1857
MHM Collections

Allowed under an 1807 Missouri statute that permitted anyone wrongfully enslaved to sue for their freedom, Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, filed petitions in 1846 to obtain their emancipation. The Scotts argued that because their owners had taken them to reside in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was prohibited, they should be free. The Scotts had a strong case; slaves before them had sued and won their freedom on numerous occasions with a similar defense, but the St. Louis Circuit Court disallowed some testimony based on a technicality, and the Scotts remained enslaved. Appeals and court reversals continued for the next ten years until Dred Scott's case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a stunning decision, the highest court ruled that no person of African descent could ever be considered a citizen under the meaning of the Constitution and therefore the Scotts were not entitled to file a lawsuit in the first place. The court's ruling held national significance and contributed to the widening sectional schism that would inevitably lead to war.