Background of Slave Freedom Suits in Missouri
"Once free, always free" was a doctrine upheld by Missouri courts in determining slave freedom suits. Dred Scott sued for his freedom because he had been a resident of Illinois and the Wisconsin territory.
The Petition to Sue for Freedom was the first step in the legal process governed by the Missouri statutes. The circuit court granted permission to sue when several conditions, including the posting of bonds, were met.
Dred Scott, like most slaves, was not allowed to learn to read or write and was thus unable to sign his name to the petition for freedom. He made his mark with an "X".
- Slaves could sue under the 1807 territorial statute (1824 state law) that allowed any person held in bondage to petition the appropriate court for permission to sue as a poor person if s/he had evidence of wrongful enslavement. In most cases, St. Lou is slaves based cases on residence in free territory.
- St. Louis produced a relatively large number of freedom suits in the early 19th century (1824-1844) for a city with a fairly small African-American population. Slaves had easy access to information and legal advice in the city and a high level of autonomy and mobility. (Hiring out, although illegal, was condoned by many slave owners because of its profitability.)
- The Missouri Supreme Court decision of Winny v. Whitesides (1824) established Missouri's judicial criteria for eligibility for freedom and set an important and original precedent for Missouri courts. If a slave owner took a slave to Illinois and set up residence there, the slave would be free under the terms of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance (a federal law that prohibited slavery in all American territory north and west of the Ohio River) even if the slave were returned to slave territory.
- The McGirk court (1820-1841) placed a premium on adhering to the law irrespective of political considerations when determining slave freedom suits; this attitude changed with the appointment of William Napton and William Scott to the court in the mid- 1840s.
- Dred and Harriet Scott were among the last people to petition for freedom in St. Louis (1846). They won the case in the lower court, but their owner appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the owner in 1852.
- The 1852 decision ended the ability of slaves in Missouri to sue for freedom based on residence in a free state. Although the freedom statute remained on the books until 1865, the Supreme Court continued to be pro-slavery.
"Background of Missouri Slave Suits" was prepared by the Missouri State Archives.