MISSOURI STATE ARCHIVES
Before Dred Scott:
Freedom Suits in Antebellum Missouri
Discussion Questions for Before Dred Scott
1. What was the Missouri Compromise? Why was it significant?
In the early 1800s, tension was rising over the spread of slavery in the Union. Whether new states entered the Union as slave or free states became crucial. In 1820, Missouri was allowed to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, thus keeping the balance of free and slave states equal in Congress. The remaining portion of Louisiana Purchase Territory north of the 36° 30' line was deemed to be "forever free of slavery." This arrangement became known as the "Missouri Compromise" and is significant for its use as a legal argument in slave freedom suits.
2. In order to sue for his or her freedom, what did a slave need to do?
Slaves had to prove to a judge that they were free black persons. This proof generally rested on residence in a free state or territory; papers of prior emancipation; or proof of birth to a free mother. The slave submitted specific documents to the court, stating the reasons s/he was free and proving some form of abuse was being inflicted upon him or her while wrongfully enslaved. Providing proof was especially difficult for slaves, because most of them were denied an education and, therefore, did not know how to read or write.
3. Why was it important to have a law that allowed slaves to sue for their freedom?
The United States is a nation founded on the principles of freedom. In a democratic society, the judicial system is the venue which offers legal recourse to correct wrongs, even to segments of society that are not recognized by the law as citizens.
The law was necessary in order to distinguish legally whether a person was slave or free. If all Africans brought to the United States remained enslaved, the law was not essential. However, certain segments of the African population gained their freedom through manumission or were born free. This led to a situation where it was necessary to establish a procedure to legally determine the status of black persons in society, whether they were free or slave. The Freedom Statute, codified into Missouri law in 1824, provided the legal mechanism that made it possible for judges to determine free or slave status and established a measure of legal protection for free blacks and slaves living in Missouri.
4. Let's consider documents. How and why were Rachel's and Ralph's suits documented? What can we learn by studying them today? How are the goings-on of our day-to-day lives and the world around us documented? Why is documentation so important?
(Note to teachers: Because the students will have access to the original documents, this could be an ideal time to lead an analysis of the dated language contained therein. Also of note is the fact that the documents are hand-written, which would have been very time consuming and tedious. It may also be interesting to note the distinction between the presence of media now, in recording history, and the lack of viable media coverage during that time period. A further point could be made about the use of documentation in schools to record the education of each student, in turning the discussion to a comparison of documentation, then and now.)