The Old Courthouse

11 N 4th St St. Louis

St. Louis History/The Old Courthouse
VAMONDE St. Louis
Written By VAMONDE St. Louis

The Old Courthouse

For those interested in history, there’s plenty to explore in the Jefferson Expansion Memorial National Park - the area that includes the famous Gateway Arch as well as the Old Cathedral and Old Courthouse. The Courthouse is particularly interesting because it plays a role in so many stories from the city’s past, including slavery and the movement to end it. Built-in 1828, for much of the 19th century it was home to both the state and federal courts of Missouri. It’s now part of the National Park and there’s no admission fee to explore on your own or take a guided tour. Two of the courtrooms inside have been restored to look as they did in 1910.

Like the Old Cathedral, the Old Courthouse was built on land aside for that purpose by the city’s founders. The first courthouse here was built of brick in the Federalist style and completed in 1828. In 1839, construction began on the current building, which incorporates the old building as its east wing, but it was not completed until the 1860s. At that time, the US Capitol was being built in Washington, DC with plans to include a large dome inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which gave the architects the idea to include a large dome here as well. Artist Carl Wimar was commissioned to paint important scenes from St. Louis's history inside the dome. The statue of a runner in front of the building was added in honor of the 1904 Olympic games in St. Louis.

A Controversial Case in a Divided Nation

The best-known case tried here was that of Dred Scott, a controversial case that was a precursor to the Civil War. Scott was an enslaved man who was considered the property of John Emerson, a surgeon for the US army. Scott traveled with Emerson to different army postings and served him as a slave even when they were in Illinois (a free state) and the territory that is now Minnesota, which was free under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. In Minnesota, he met and married his wife Eliza. They later traveled to Louisiana for Emerson’s next posting and, along the way, Eliza gave birth to a baby in free territory. When Dr. Emerson died, the couple was sent to St. Louis as the property of Emerson’s widow, who rented them out.

Scott asked to buy his family’s freedom from Mrs. Emerson and she said no, so he sued her. Under the laws at the time, if a person brought enslaved people to free state for a significant period, they became free, and Missouri generally recognized people who were free in other states as being free in Missouri. Scott’s attorneys argued that since he had lived in free territory, he was still free. They initially lost, then won on appeal.

When the case came here to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1858, the justices not only rejected Scott’s claim of Freedom, they reversed precedent by ruling that Missouri no longer had to abide by the 38-year-Missouri compromise. According to the court, times had changed since the compromise was passed, and Missouri could no longer honor the laws of other states where slavery had become extremely unpopular. Scott then filed a federal suit, and the case went before the US Supreme Court in 1857. The Supreme Court ruled that Scott had no right to sue because no person of African ancestry could be a US citizen, regardless of whether they had ever been a slave. For those who had been working to abolish slavery, the ruling was a huge step backward and deepened the divides that would lead to the Civil War only four years later. By the time of the ruling, Mrs. Emerson had moved to Massachusetts and married a well-known doctor who was an abolitionist. The controversy wasn’t good for the couple’s image and they finally freed the Scott family.

An Early Test of Women's Rights

A lesser-known but important case tried here was that of Virginia Louisa Minor, who sued for the right to vote in 1873. At that time, the only place in the US where women had the right was the Wyoming Territory. In 1867, Minor founded the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri, one of the first organizations in the world to focus on this cause. They organized a woman suffrage convention in St. Louis in 1869, at which Minor argued that women already had the legal right to vote under the 14th Amendment, which stated that anyone born in the US was a citizen, and didn’t specify women as an exception. During the 1872 presidential election, she was part of a nationwide movement of women who attempted to vote. Susan B. Anthony succeeded in casting a vote but was later criminally charged and ordered to pay a $100 fine. When Minor attempted to register to vote, she was denied by the district registrar, so she and her husband lawyer Francis Minor filed suit.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against them, on the ground that the 14th Amendment was intended to give citizenship to African American men. The case made it to the US Supreme Court, which also ruled against the minors, finding that the right to vote is different from citizenship and is not a constitutional right for anyone, leaving states to make their own laws about voting. The suffrage movement then turned its attention to pushing states to legalize women voting, which was successful in a few states in the 1890s. However, women in most of the US did not have the right to vote until nearly 50 years after Minor’s suit when Congress passed the 19th Amendment.

Explore the courthouse where famous cases were decided.
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Cover photo: OakleyOriginals, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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