On my recent trip to St. Louis, Missouri, I could not resist visiting the beautiful Old Courthouse. In 1816, Auguste Chouteau and Judge John B.C. Lucas donated land to St. Louis County which, according to the deed, was to be “used forever as the site on which the courthouse of the County of St. Louis should be erected.” Construction for the original building was completed in 1828. The current Greek Revival style courthouse was constructed between 1839 and 1862. The original building was incorporated as the east wing. It served as a state and federal courthouse until 1930. In 1932, descendants of the Chouteau and Lucas families filed a lawsuit that claimed that the building and its property should revert back to them as it was no longer used for its original purpose. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against them, because it held that the deed contained no provision for forfeiture that would imply a right of re-entry.
In 1940, the city of St. Louis deeded the Old Courthouse to the Federal Government. It is now part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park and is listed in the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network To Freedom. The Network to Freedom recognizes sites, programs, and facilities with verifiable associations to the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad refers to the “effort…to assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery”.
Numerous legal cases were decided in the courthouse until it closed in 1930. The most famous one is probably the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit for their freedom from slavery. The first two trials were held in the Old Courthouse building in 1847 and 1850. The Scotts won the second trial and it was decided that they should be free. The case was appealed and ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857). The Supreme Court held that slaves were not citizens of the United States and therefore could not sue in Federal courts. The majority also ruled that no individual of African descent could be a citizen of the United States, even if such individual was a free citizen of the state where they resided. The decision’s holding concerning citizenship became obsolete with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Another significant case was one brought in 1872 by the suffragist Virginia Louisa Minor who challenged voting restrictions in the United States which excluded women. When she attempted to register to vote, she was refused and filed a civil suit against the ward registrar in St. Louis. She based her right to vote on the first section of the 14th Amendment and argued that she was denied the privileges and immunities of citizenship. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one,” because suffrage was not coexistent with citizenship and that “the constitutions and laws of the several States which commit that important trust to men alone are not necessarily void.” Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162, 178 (1875).
I had the great honor of working at the historic Old Courthouse that is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. My daily job was to share the many stories of this important place that was a center of activity for a developing city that became America’s “Gateway to the West.” I am pleased to know it will be preserved for future generations.
Kevin Abney, Former Park Ranger
Each of the north lawns of the courthouse has what appears to a capital of a column. What are these and why are they there?
Hi Leigh, thanks for reading our blog! Maybe this explanation from the National Park Service will help with your question: