Today, presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke before massive crowds (estimated at 100,000 people) on the lawn of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO. In the background and, so far as I have seen in news stories, unremarked, the Old Courthouse watched history unfold yet again.
In the background of the picture at the top of this news story: http://tinyurl.com/5e8mu6 look for a white building with a patinaed copper dome. This is the Old Courthouse. It is a white, Federalist-style building with two wings flanking a rotunda capped with a copper dome based on the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. Built in 1827, it served as a center for law and order in what was then known (to some) as the last civilized city in the west. In 1947 the County of St. Louis deeded it to the Federal Government and it is now listed on the National Historic Registry and is home to a museum.
It is uniquely fitting that this building should bear witness to Obama's historic run for the presidency, for it was here, in 1847, that the Dred Scott anti-slavery case was first heard. After a series of appeals and counter-suits, in 1857 the Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott and his wife, who had sued for their freedom. The case was a landmark because it established that no one of African descent was considered a citizen of the United States and that, not being citizens, they were not entitled to bring action in a court of law. It also struck down the Missouri Compromise, which made northern parts of the Louisiana Purchase "free territories", by ruling slaves to be property which could not be taken from their owners without due process, even if their owners travelled to places where slavery was illegal.
This ruling angered northern politicians and abolitionists, polarizing the opposing factions on the question of slavery and quite possibly hastening the onset of the Civil War. Ironically, the Scotts' owner, a widow, had re-married to a congressman who was an abolitionist and he arranged for them to be freed shortly after the Supreme Court ruling was handed down. Sadly, Dred Scott had but scant time to enjoy his freedom. Just nine months later he died of tuberculosis.
And today, within sight of where Dred Scott and his wife were first found by the law to be property subject to the fifth amendment, 100,000 people of all races turned out to hear a charismatic black man speak of his very real aspirations for the presidency. I'd like to say here that I, personally, support Barack Obama, not because he is black (or in spite of the fact that he is black), but because I am impressed by his intellect and his achievements and I believe he is the best person to guide our nation through these troubled times. But it is nice to look across this massive crowd to the green copper dome of the Old Courthouse and reflect on how far we've come in 161 years.
Incidentally, I have to confess that I didn't notice the Old Courthouse in the background because I am a super-savvy historian (alas!). The Old Courthouse is one of the locations that appears in my as-yet-unpublished murder mystery, The Reenactment.