Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 26
Other Matters at the
Courthouse

WHILE THE SCOTTS waited, Judge Krum had a pressing case on the docket. Authorities had arrested Charles Lyons, a free mulatto man,1 for the crime of being a free black residing in Missouri without a license, which Missouri law required.2 The sheriff was expected to apprehend and jail any unlicensed black person. Only certain classes of free persons of color—those with good reputations who could support themselves—were even eligible to be licensed to remain in the state.3 Under the statute, the court had little discretion; it was obligated first to fine them, if they could pay, or have them whipped if they couldn’t, and then expel them from the state.4 Since more free blacks lived in St. Louis than anywhere else in Missouri, the statute especially burdened the city’s black population. White persons, on the other hand, were never required to obtain licenses simply to reside in the state. Unless they were vagrants, they were usually simply left alone.

Lyons challenged his arrest and the statute as unconstitutional,5 so before Judge Krum could get to the Scotts’ lawsuit, he had to rule on Lyons’s liberty claim. There was no doubt that Lyons was free. Born in Kentucky, the son of a free black man and a Seneca Indian woman, he had moved to St. Louis from New York.6 None of his forebears had ever been held in servitude. Like other free persons, he came west seeking opportunity, which he found working on riverboats.7 The issue was the scope of his freedom under Missouri law. Did the state have the authority to restrict his freedom by subjecting him to licensing merely because he was black? How could freedom require licensing?

Lyons insisted that, as a free man, he was entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution and, accordingly, could not be deprived of his liberty by the Missouri statute. It was not until the Scotts’ case reached the U.S. Supreme Court that this federal constitutional claim would be definitively resolved. Lyons argued that having been born free in Kentucky, he was fully entitled to all privileges and immunities of being a citizen. He was arrested without a warrant and neither charged with, nor guilty of, any crime. Lyons also argued that the licensing legislation was repugnant

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