Lesson One: Dred Scott and the Constitution

Purpose of lesson will be to familiarize students with the legal reasoning behind the Dred Scott decision.  Students will also learn the importance of evidentiary support for arguments.

Questions to consider

  • What were the major legal issues considered in the Dred Scott decision?
  • Upon what interpretation of the constitution was Chief Justice Taney’s opinion based?
  • Were there other interpretations of the constitution discussed in America at that time? If so, what were they?


  1. Begin class by writing the words “We the people of the United States” on the board.  Tell students that one aspect of the Dred Scott decision revolved around interpreting this constitutional phrase.  Students should keep it in mind during the lesson.
  2. Next, students should take out their excerpted copy of the Taney opinion (which they had read the night before).  Ask students to identify the two overarching questions in the case.  The students, with some prompting, will identify the issues of citizenship and property rights.  At this point, teachers should review the issue of “standing” and the Supreme Court.  Make sure students understand that the Dred Scott case arrived at the Supreme Court because on the premise of “diversity of citizenship” – in other words the opposing parties were citizens of different states and that is how they had standing.
  3. The teacher should make two columns on the board titled “diversity of citizenship(argument)/standing(issue)” and “property rights”.  Students must now use the text of Taney’s opinion to list the evidence Taney gave to support his holding.
  4. Teachers should note that Taney dismissed the “diversity of citizenship” argument using a historical reading of the constitution that excluded citizenship rights to Scott because he was a slave.  Therefore, according to Taney, Scott lacked standing because he was not a citizen of the United States and certainly not a citizen of Missouri.  In reference to the second issue, Taney without question assumed that slaves were property and not individuals.  Just as books, computers, and other personal items can be brought with the individual to other states, so too could slaves.  The teacher should point out that Taney’s argument “makes sense” if you accept his basic premises.  Ask students if they agree with Taney’s argument.  A discussion should ensue.
  5. At this point play the audio file labeled Frederick Douglass II (1:28) for students.  Encourage students to take notes as they listen.  Play twice if needed.  Ask students how this speaker interprets the phrase “We the people of the United States”.  Ask students who is right, Douglass or Taney?  Students must defend their position.


Student understanding of the legal reasoning behind the Taney opinion may be assessed in a number of ways.

  • Students can write an essay comparing and contrasting different interpretations of the constitution as they apply to the Dred Scott case.  Students can draw on the classroom discussion for their argument.
  • After giving students an edited copy of Abraham Lincoln’s June 26, 1857 speech, students can write an essay in which they analyze Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott decision.  (In this speech Lincoln addressed both the issue of citizenship and property.  This speech is also a great source for introducing the Lincoln-Douglas debates.)