Our favorite federal agency


Within the morning shadow of the Gateway Arch is the Old St. Louis County Courthouse, maintained by the National Park Service. In 1846 Dred and Harriet Scott petitioned there for their freedom, and in May 1857, the court granted their owner’s motion for their manumission.

Two months earlier, however, the U.S. Supreme Court had found against the Scotts, declaring them property and ineligible for citizenship, and the Compromise of 1820, under which Congress had admitted slave and free states in equal number, unconstitutional.

Dred Scott, as the park ranger standing under the Old Courthouse’s rotunda explained, is regarded as the final act that resolved the nation for civil war, perhaps the Supreme Court’s greatest error in judgment. As I listened to this typically well-read ranger discuss Scott and other notorious cases, I wondered which he thought was the high court’s second-most consequential decision. Before I could ask, he answered.

Roe v. Wade was more consequential,” said my pony-tailed, barrel-chested raconteur. “It has resulted in many more deaths than the Civil War.”

Struck by his candidness, I thought of Donald Trump’s attempt to get the Park Service to affirm that his inauguration was the most-attended, and of his other efforts to muzzle rangers on the effects of climate change. Well into the Great Disruption, it remains unlikely that the employees of our favorite agency can be prevented from speaking their mind. And that’s a smile.


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