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Website of the Week for April 9, 2007

Cheryl Nyberg, editor

Website of the Week Archive

St. Louis Circuit Courts: Freedom Suits Case Files, 1814-1860

by Ernesto Longa, Law Librarianship Intern

In A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery (1856), George Stroud noted that because slaves could neither acquire nor retain property, they could not be party to civil suits. However, there was one exception to this general rule under the laws of all the slave holding states. Persons held as slaves, but claiming to be free, were permitted to prosecute their claims before some judicial tribunal. For example, the Missouri territory enacted a law in 1807 that permitted enslaved persons to sue for their freedom if they could prove that they were being held in “wrongful enslavement.” As a result, hundreds of African slaves sued for their freedom in the St. Louis courts between 1814 and 1860. 

Acquired by the Missouri State Archives in 1999, the St. Louis Circuit Court’s Freedom Suits Case Files (1814-1860) consist of 292 legal petitions for freedom, making this the largest collection of freedom suits currently available to researchers in the United States. Included in the collection is the most famous freedom suit in United State’s history- Dred Scott and Harriett Scott v. Emerson.  According to Washington University Professor David Konig, examined closely, these files reveal what appellate records cannot: “the profound importance of the rule of law at a time of a deep `crisis of law and order’ in antebellum America.”  Finally, the case files are invaluable because of the rare “oral histories” that they provide concerning slaves’ travels, families, work, and relations with their masters and freedom advocates.   

For additional articles concerning freedom suits see:

  • David Thomas Konig, The Long Road to Dred Scott: Personhood and the Rule of Law in the Trial Court Records of St. Louis Slave Freedom Suits, 75 UMKC L. Rev. 53 (2006) (highlighting how the Scott’s claim to freedom rested on the well established and settled law represented in the hundreds of cases that preceded them in the St. Louis Circuit Court).
  • Jason A. Gillmer, Suing for Freedom: Interracial Sex, Slave Law, and Racial Identity in the Post-Revolutionary and Antebellum South, 82 N.C. L. Rev. 535 (2003-2004) (analyzing freedom suits in which slaves of mixed race descent asserted their right to freedom).
  • Cairo A. Trimble, Negro Slavery and the Courts of Illinois, 6 J. Marshall L.Q. 158 (1940-1941) (providing the best summation of Illinois freedom suits).
  • Emily Blanck, Seventeen Eighty-Three: The Turning Point in the Law of Slavery and Freedom in Massachusetts, 75 New England Quarterly 24 (2002) (examining all documented pre-constitutional era freedom suits in Massachusetts).

Note: Links to articles lead to UW Restricted sources.

2008, M.G. Gallagher Law Library, University of Washington