The Dred Scott Decision: Republican vs. Democratic Perspective

Students will read and analyze contemporary newspaper editorials of 1857 regarding the Dred Scott decision to analyze differences in perspective of Democratic Party followers and Republican Party followers. After this analysis, students will be able to answer the focus question “What differences in perspective on slavery between the two political parties did the Dred Scott decision reveal?” Students will choose a perspective from which to write their own “editorial”, and they will be given the choice of presentation medium.

Historical Background

In 1819, there were anti-slavery and slavery factions in the U.S., and the 22 states that were members of the union were equally divided between slave states and free states. Missouri wanted to enter the union as a slave state. Fierce arguments from the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions ensued. A compromise was reached in Congress in 1820 when Missouri was allowed to enter as a slave state, Maine entered as a free state, and slavery was prohibited in the Louisiana territory north of latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes. Thirty years later, the nation was faced with issues again regarding the balance of slave states versus free states entering the Union after the Mexican-American War. With the Compromise of 1850, engineered by Henry Clay, several territories were allowed to make the decision about whether they would be slave states or free states when they applied for admission to the union. California was admitted as a free state, and to appease the South over this, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. The Compromise of 1850 kept the nation united and made slave owners feel better, but angered abolitionists and others opposed to slavery, which, as years went by, added to the divisiveness in the nation between anti- and pro-slavery states. Then came the Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854, which allowed the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to determine, through popular sovereignty, whether or not they would allow slavery in their territories. This had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise.

While these events were occurring, a slave named Dred Scott was fighting for his freedom through the courts in Missouri based on the contention that he was eligible to have his freedom because he lived in the free state of Illinois for over two years and in the free territory of Wisconsin. For two years, based on the decision of the St. Louis Circuit Court, Scott and his wife and family were free. Scott’s former owner, Eliza Emerson, not wanting to give up the slaves, challenged the lower court ruling, and the Missouri State Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the lower court. Next, Scott’s case went to the U.S. Supreme Court based on the premise that Scott and his owner, John Sanford, a resident of New York, were citizens of different states (see Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution). Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney, who supported slavery, denied Scott’s suit, and in writing the opinion for the majority, many of whom were slaveholders, he declared that as a black man, Scott was not a citizen of a state and could not bring suit in a federal court. He determined the founding fathers had not intended for slaves and the black man to be citizens of the U.S. Taney also wrote that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction in Scott’s case and deferred to the Supreme Court of Missouri’s decision. The Supreme Court also determined that Scott had always been a slave because he was personal property, and it declared the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional because Congress had no right, under the constitutional protection of private property, to bar slavery from the new territories. Opponents of slavery (among the opponents, the Republican Party) were very upset by the Dred Scott decision. Many northerners could accept slavery as long as it remained within its current borders, but not if it expanded with newly added territories. On the other hand, supporters of slavery (members of the Democratic Party) were pleased with the Dred Scott decision. It supported their rights to have slaves under the union of the United States. Southerners believed the Dred Scott decision was essential to keeping the Union together.

Lesson Objective

To build background knowledge, after reading excerpts from the Democratic and Republican platforms of 1856, students will be able to determine the positions of each party on slavery in the United States.

After analyzing newspaper editorials from both parties on the Dred Scott Decision, students will be able to identify the differences between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party as revealed by the Dred Scott Decision. Students will produce an editorial on the Dred Scott Decision from the perspective of the political party they choose. Students will have an option of the medium through which they express this editorial opinion.



  1. Day One
  2. As the students walk in the room, hand them grouping cards to be used later when the students work on the activities in the lesson.
  3. Activate prior knowledge: Review what the students have just learned about the Dred Scott Decision using the “In the Hot Seat Strategy.” Prior to class, write questions about the Dred Scott Decision on sticky notes and place the sticky notes randomly underneath seats throughout the classroom. During the activator, ask students to look under their seats. Those with the questions will answer the questions. Other students will listen in case any of the students need to call on a friend to help them answer the questions.
  4. Share the focus question with the class. Explain the students will explore the answer to the focus question by examining how the two political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, view the Supreme Court’s decision about the Dred Scott case, which reveals each party’s view of slavery.
  5. Have the students use the grouping cards to quickly seat themselves in 7 to 8 (depending on the class size) groups and hand out the note-taking chart for the political party platforms. Distribute the excerpts of the platforms, dividing the Democratic Party platform and the Republican Party platform equally between the groups.
  6. Students will use a jigsaw strategy to complete note taking on the party platforms. Once the notes are done, students will get together with group members who took notes on the other part to exchange notes.
  7. Summarizing journal question: Write a summary of the Democratic Party’s and Republican Party’s stands on slavery in the U.S. in 1856.
  8. Day Two
  9. Activator: Review the Republican and Democratic Parties’ position on slavery in the U.S.
  10. Review the definition for an editorial with the class. Then share that after the Dred Scott Decision, several newspapers published editorials about the Supreme Court decision. Share that some of these editorials were from a Democratic perspective and some were from a Republican perspective.
  11. As a class, read one editorial on the Dred Scott Decision, and complete a perspective graphic organizer on the flipchart. Have students use “text extraction” to extract key sentences or phrases from the sample editorial that help them inference the perspective on slavery found in the editorial.
  12. Introduce the assignment for the editorials. Hand out blank perspective graphic organizers to the students. Explain to the students they will work in groups to analyze their assigned editorial for perspective. For Students with Disabilities and ESOL students, assign them the shorter editorials for work in a small group. Remind students to use the close reading strategy students have been using all year as they analyze the editorials. Direct students to designate a helper to look up words in the dictionaries the students need clarification on. Explain to students once they are done, they will meet up with members of other groups to record notes on the perspectives of the other editorials.
  13. Summarizer: Have students complete a 3-2-1 summarizer for the day’s activity.
  14. Day Three
  15. Activator: Have students share ideas from their 3-2-1 summarizers from the day before.
  16. Hand out the editorial assignment and walk the class through it. Explain the product choices to the students. Give the students 5 minutes to determine from which perspective they will write their editorial.


Editorial Assignment, which will be due one week from the date students received the assignment


Editorial Assignment


Students will work in cooperative groups to read, discuss, and take notes on the primary source documents. Students will work with a primary source document in line with their reading level. The jigsaw method for sharing information will allow students with different reading levels to work together to share notes and inferences students made about the different perspectives. Students will be given choices for the medium to present their editorials.


Benson, L. “Secession era editorials project.” (accessed December 26, 2012)

Cooks, B. R. “Dred Scott: picturing a nineteenth century icon.” 2011. (accessed December 26, 2012)

“Dred Scott and his family, June 17, 1857.” Shaping the Constitution.

Finkelman, P. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A brief history with documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997.

Peters, Gerhard and John T. Woolley. “Democratic Party Platform of 1856.” The American
Presidency Project. (accessed December 26, 2012)

Gerhard, P. and Woolley, J. T. “Republican Party Platform of1856.” The American Presidency
Project. (accessed December 26, 2012.

Roger Brooke Taney. Dickinson University. (accessed December 27, 2012)

Roger Brooke Taney. A House Divided. (accessed December 27, 2012)

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