Written by Olga Koulisis, Burncoat Senior High School, Worcester Public Schools
As a landmark Supreme Court case in American history, the importance of the Dred Scott decision deserves its due within the high school classroom. Born into slavery in Virginia around 1800, Dred Scott traveled westward to St. Louis with his master, Peter Blow, for almost thirty years. Following his master’s death, Scott was sold to an army surgeon named John Emerson. Emerson’s army unit soon transferred to Illinois and then Wisconsin. Though slavery was outlawed in these territories, many army officers brought their slaves with them. It was in Wisconsin that Scott married Harriet Robinson, who then also belonged to John Emerson.
By 1842 the Scotts were back in St. Louis. The following year, Emerson died and ownership of the Scotts passed to Emerson’s widow. It was at this point that Scott attempted to purchase his freedom from Mrs. Emerson, but she refused his offer. Following the refusal, Dred Scott sued for his freedom in a Missouri court in 1846. This started a long legal battle that eventually ended up at the Supreme Court. It should be noted that soon after 1846, Mrs. Emerson sold the Scotts to her brother, John Sandford, who lived in New York. Since the case now concerned parties from different states, the Scotts were allowed to bring their case before the Supreme Court. Even though now under federal jurisdiction, the Supreme Court would not have time to hear the case until February 1856.
When the decision was read in March 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney handed down the majority position. The decision effectively and legally labeled the Scotts non-citizens that lacked the right to appear before the Court. Furthermore, the decision invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and consequently legally opened the movement of slavery to non-slave states.
In these lessons, students learn the legal reasoning behind the Court’s decision through direct analysis of the majority opinion. An examination of this case will expand their knowledge of the judicial branch of the American government. They will also recognize the importance of interpretation as it concerns the constitution. Furthermore, these lessons will expose students to the myriad American responses to the Dred Scott decision. They will appreciate the divisiveness of the issue and understand its importance as an event on the road to the Civil War.
- What was the legal reasoning behind the Dred Scott decision? What were the legal ramifications of Scott’s lawsuit?
- Why did Americans feel the need to address the Dred Scott decision? How did Americans respond?
After completing this lesson, students should:
- Understand the legal reasoning behind the Dred Scott decision.
- Understand the legal significance of the Dred Scott decision as it concerns the Constitution.
- Understand how America responded to the Dred Scott case.
- Understand how the Dred Scott case gave both anti-slavery and pro-slavery activists an issue to rally around.
Background Information for the Teacher
The Dred Scott case is important for its political, social, and legal ramifications. It is important to highlight the Court’s justification in handing down this ruling. Though the case made it to the Supreme Court based on the premise of “diversity of citizenship,” the Court dismissed this argument because Scott was not entitled to standing according to the Court’s interpretation of the constitution. Scott, because he was a slave and black, was not a citizen of the United States and therefore had no right to argue before the Supreme Court. Secondly, the Court stressed the fact that all citizens of the United States were entitled to take their property with them wherever they pleased. According to Taney, this right extended into the free territories. This decision, in effect, made the Missouri Compromise illegal. The Court’s decision was based on a racial reading of the constitution. It viewed the founding document as a white constitution that did not apply to blacks.
The teacher will have to be familiar with how cases get to the Supreme Court. In order to address the Court, a case must have standing, it must be filed by an individual, and it must state some injury that the Court can redress. Students will have to learn, if they have not already, the issue of standing.
Since the Dred Scott case was so well followed there are many primary source editorials that students can read. These are important because they show the fissures in American society during the antebellum period. Teachers should be familiar with all the Dred Scott audio clips on the Teaching US History website. They are a great way to get information from the period across to students quickly.
It might interest students to know that after the case, John Blow’s sons (John Blow was the original owner) bought Dred Scott and his wife out of slavery and set them free. Unfortunately, Mr.Scott died nine months later.
Preparing to Teach this Unit
- Excerpted version of the Taney opinion
- Various audio clips as specificed in lesson plans
- Various editorials from the Secession Era Editorials Project webpage
- Optional: Abraham Lincoln’s June 26, 1857 speech on Dred Scott
Student understanding of the Dred Scott decision can be assessed in a variety of ways. Possibilities include, but are not limited to:
- Lesson 1 could be assessed as a writing exercise. Students could write a compare and contrast essay. They could also write their own opinion to the Dred Scott case.
- Lesson 2 could be assessed as a writing exercise. Students could write their own editorials to the Dred Scott decision. They could also create a chart identifying pro-slavery and anti-slavery voices in America.
The unit conforms with the Massachusetts Frameworks for U.S. History I, specifically:
USI. 31 Describe the formation of the abolitionist movement, the roles of the various abolitionists, and the response of southerners and northerners to abolitionism. (H)
USI.36 Summarize the critical developments leading to the Civil War. (H)
Primary source analysis, note taking skills, audio skills, graphic representation of material, critical thinking, writing skills, logic and reasoning.
Entire unit would take two 50-minute class periods, plus extension activities that would be completed outside of class time.