Missouri Digital Heritage :: Education :: Before Dred Scott :: Ralph v. Coleman Duncan

Before Dred Scott:
Freedom Suits in Antebellum Missouri

History of Slave Freedom Suits in Missouri

An 1807 Missouri territorial statute said that a person held in wrongful servitude could sue for freedom. Most of the people using this law to gain freedom were enslaved Africans. Since these cases were all brought for the same reason, historians call them "freedom suits."

Suing for freedom was not easy. The 1807 statute had many requirements and outlined each step slaves had to take to win their freedom. Slaves had to prove they were free black persons. They also had to prove they had been physically abused while being held as slaves.

Freedom suits followed a general pattern. Many of the same words were used in each one. Such documents are said to be pro forma – they are issued from different people but follow the same model and use the same language. Each suit included a petition to sue for freedom, a charge of trespass of false imprisonment, and witness testimony.

The 1807 statute was made part of Missouri law in 1824 . The law remained in effect until after the Civil War (1865). The years between 1824 and 1844 are considered the "golden age" of freedom suits since many slaves won their freedom through this process during these years. The "golden age" was a result of an 1824 decision by the Missouri Supreme Court that set an example for other courts to follow. Such an example is called a precedent. This particular precedent is referred to as "once free, always free" – a short and easy way to understand the Court's reasoning. The Court said that if a slave was taken to live in a territory or state where slavery was not allowed, at that point the slave became a free person – even if he or she later returned to a slave state, such as Missouri.

In 1846, a slave named Dred Scott sued for his freedom in St. Louis. He said he had lived in both a free territory and a free state. However, in 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court denied Dred Scott his freedom. The Court was made up of different judges than in earlier years and arguments over slavery were more intense. This led them to overturn the "once free, always free" precedent. They did not believe that living in a free territory and free state made Dred Scott a free man. With this pro-slavery decision, the "golden age" of freedom suits was over. Very few slaves were successful in winning their freedom after 1852.

The Dred Scott decision was one of the factors that led the United States to civil war.