They are the subjects of this statue, which stands before the columns of the Old Courthouse, its cupola mirrored in the windows behind them. As a plaque explains, it was here, in 1846, that the husband and wife “filed suit for their freedom.” Born into slavery as were many in 19th C. America who claimed African ancestry, the Scotts contended that they had become free while residing for a time in free territory – Wisconsin – and so challenged efforts to retain them as slaves when they found themselves back in what was then a slave state. Having lost in Missouri, they petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps that is why the statue looks eastward, through the Gateway Arch (below) and toward Washington, D.C.
As is well known, the Scotts found no recourse in the nation’s capital. Applying a tendentious originalist methodology, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion for a 7-2 majority of the Supreme Court in Scott v. Sandford (1857) held against the Scotts on the ground that no one of their ancestry could be a citizen under the U.S. Constitution. For added measure, Taney proclaimed the Missouri Compromise, by which the Wisconsin territory was deemed free, unconstitutional. It marked the first high court invalidation of a congressional statute since Marbury v. Madison (1803).
It would take a Civil War, fought primarily in the eastern United States, to secure – by means of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution – the freedom the Scotts had sought decades earlier.