Examining the case
Who was Dred Scott? (At right is a portrait from the Missouri State Archives.) How did his suit for his freedom and that of his wife and children wind up in the Supreme Court? Scott was NOT the first or the only black person in Missouri to sue for freedom. There is a brief discussion of the background to Scott's case and other so-called freedom cases at a site on the case at the Washington University Library. There is a brief film (requires Macromedia Flash player) about freedom suits at the St. Louis Court Historical Records Project that is suitable for middle and high school classes. You can also find a much more detailed discussion of the Dred Scott Case there along with facsimiles of the original court records. The court records are also available at the Washington University site. You can access scanned versions of the originals in two sizes and download transcriptions in either html or Pdf format. Few teachers will want to use these records extensively, even in AP classes. But you may want to show students what the first page of the case that made such an impact in American history looked like. You may also want to show students the 1824 law under which Scott sued.
Examining the decision
Chief Justice Taney's decision for the court in Scott v. Sanford + the concurring and dissenting opinions are at the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School. You almost certainly do not want to use these materials in toto. We have created an excerpted version of Taney's opinion and have divided it into sections corresponding to his arguments. This is also too long for classroom use, except in AP classes. You can carve it up further to suit the needs of your students.
Examining the controversy
Professor Lloyd Benson has created the Secession Era Editorials Project at Furman U. It includes almost two dozen editorials from newspapers both North and South. This is a manageable number in honors sections, if you break your class into groups. One can study Republican reaction. A second can look at southern opinion. A third can examine northern Democratic responses. Alternatively you may wish to choose several editorials to concentrate upon. You might consider "The Issue Forced Upon Us" from the Albany, New York, Evening Journal [Republican] for 9 March 1857. It sounds the same conspiracy theory voiced by Lincoln. It reads in part:
The conspiracy is nearly completed. The Legislation of the Republic is in the hands of this handfull of Slaveholders. The United States Senate assures it to them. The Executive power of the Government is theirs. Buchanan took the oath of fealty to them on the steps of the Capitol last Wednesday. The body which gives the supreme law of the land, has just acceded to their demands, and dared to declare that under the charter of the Nation, men of African descent are not citizens of the United States and can not be -- that the Ordinance of 1787 was void -- that human Slavery is not a local thing, but pursues its victims to free soil, clings to them wherever they go, and returns with them -- that the American Congress has no power to prevent the enslavement of men in the National Territories -- that the inhabitants themselves of the Territories have no power to exclude human bondage from their midst -- and that men of color can not be suitors for justice in the Courts of the United States!
In contrast you might use "The Past and the Future" from the Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury [Democratic] for 17 March 1857. One of the audio segments contains excerpts from this editorial. It gloats:
In this decision of the Court there is certainly presented to the minds of all those anxious Union-savers south of MASON and DIXON'S line -- the men who have been teaching us so anxiously lessons of peace, and forbearance, and self-sacrifice -- a charming subject of contemplation and retrospection. It appears that we, Secessionists, have been all the while not disturbing the law, not intruding novelties upon the country, not seeking to break up established principles, but that we have been simply a step in advance of the highest tribunal in the country, in declaring what was the law of the land, and seeking honestly and faithfully to enforce it.
Examining the consequences
You might want to begin with Dred Scott and his family. You can get the facts at a Dred Scott Chronology page at the Washington University Library. We have digitized an article from Frank Leslie's Illustrated in 1857 which contains an interview with both Dred and Harriet Scott (at right; the image comes from this article). This will give students a much fuller sense of the people behind the case. Harriet Scott, in particular, is likely to intrigue students. Excerpts from this article are available as an audio file. Some students may be curious about the laundry business the Scotts ran in St. Louis. Washing machines were new inventions and not very reliable. There is a pamphlet for a washing machine, circa 1860, at Duke University's collection of advertising materials. Harriet Scott had to make do, in all likelihood, with a large pail, a washboard, soap, and a lot of effort. Once washed she would rinse the clothes, then put them through a wringer, and then hang them up to dry. Here is an advertisement for a new iron, which gives some notion of how women like Harriet Scott ironed; here is a contemporary advertisement for a Boston laundry — both from the Library of Congress American Memory site.
The political consequences defied the expectations of the decision's supporters. Justice Taney's decision did not put an end to the controversy over slavery in the territories. Instead it enflamed it. As the Charleston Mercury editorialized, Taney adopted the views of the late John C. Calhoun. In the furor immediately following the Mexican War, northern hardliners repaired to the standard of the Wilmot Proviso. It prohibited slavery in any of the territories seized from Mexico. Southern hardliners found their champion in Calhoun. He maintained, literally with his dying breath, that Congress lacked the power to ban slavery in any of the territories, including those north of the Missouri Compromise line. The Compromise of 1850 rejected both Wilmot's and Calhoun's positions. California entered the Union as a free state, even though portions of it lay south of the Missouri line. The question of slavery in New Mexico, Arizona, and other former Mexican lands was postponed. The doctrine of popular sovereignty meant that no decision needed to be made until a much larger number of Americans chose to settle in what was then called the Great American Desert. The question of the continued validity of the Missouri Compromise with regard to the Louisiana Purchase territories was left open until the Kansas Nebraska Act effectively repealed it. (Stephen Douglas claimed that the Compromise of 1850 repealed it by adopting popular sovereignty.) Taney's decision sought to eliminate all positions on slavery in the territories except Calhoun's. Congress could not, he held ban slavery in any territory. This meant that the Wilmot Proviso, the heart of the Republican platform, was unconstitutional. So was the Missouri Compromise. Many who sought to avoid sectional conflict had hoped to revive it in some form. But Taney's ruling also made popular sovereignty unconstitutional, as Lincoln lost no time in pointing out. The people of a territory, under its terms, could not bar slavery until Congress accepted their petition for statehood. By that time, the "peculiar institution" might be well established since, as Lincoln pointed out, what happened at the outset of settlement would prove decisive.
There are several ways of approaching this very complex topic. One is via the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. The complete texts + other contemporary materials are available at a site at Northern Illinois University. There are also several lesson plans keyed to Illinois state standards. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, or even any one of them, may simply be too long and complex for classroom use. So we have excerpted one, the one held at Galesburgh, in which the Dred Scott Decision played a major role. Douglas lays out his claim that the Dred Scott decision did not invalidate the right of citizens of a territory to keep slavery out prior to applying for statehood. Lincoln's rebuttal takes the form of a syllogism that proved, he claimed, that the Dred Scott decision paved the way for another ruling which would hold that Illinois laws against slavery were unconstitutional. Douglas' reply asserts that Lincoln was addressing an entirely imaginary danger and that all Americans had an obligation to accept the rulings of the Supreme Court. You may want to cut these excerpts even further, depending upon the needs of your students.
Another approach is via "Bleedin' Kansas." John McClymer has created Bleeding Kansas: A Narrative Guide to the Sources at the E Pluribus Unum site at Assumption College. AP teachers might consider using it as is. Most teachers will find it useful for their own preparation. It contains numerous vivid first person accounts of the fighting including the massacres at Pottawatomie (led by John Brown) and Marais Des Cynes.
- There is an excellent introduction to the case at the Missouri State Archives.
- Professor Lloyd Benson has created the Secession Era Editorials Project at Furman U. It includes almost two dozen editorials from newspapers both North and South.
- Chief Justice Taney's decision for the court in Scott v. Sanford + the concurring and dissenting opinions at the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School.
- The court records in Missouri, where the case began in 1846, are at a Washington University Library site. There is a helpful page explaining the background of the Scott and other freedom suits in Missouri, prepared by the Missouri State Archives. You can also find a chronology.
- Facsimiles of the Scott court records and those of some other freedom suits are available at the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project. So is a brief film (requires Macromedia Flash player) about freedom suits.
- Text of the Missouri law under which the Scotts sued for their freedom.
- Harriet Scott told Frank Leslie's Newsweekly that she opposed her husband making money off the case's notoriety. Instead she claimed she earned enough doing laundry to support them and their two children. There is a pamphlet for a washing machine, circa 1860, at Duke University's collection of advertising materials. Harriet Scott had to make do, in all likelihood, with a large pail, a washboard, soap, and a lot of effort. Once washed she would rinse the clothes, then put them through a wringer, and then hang them up to dry. Here an advertisement for a new iron, which gives some notion of how women like Harriet Scott ironed; here is a contemporary advertisement for a Boston laundry — both from the Library of Congress American Memory site.