Skip to Main Content

Dred Scott v. Sandford DBQ

90 min
  • Students will be able to compare and contrast the arguments regarding the spread of slavery, by analyzing primary sources.
  • Students will evaluate arguments in light of constitutional principles.

If desired, provide each student with an outline map showing U.S. states and territories in the period 1830–1850.

Display either a series of wall maps showing the spread of slavery 1830-1860, or an animated map that demonstrates westward expansion and slave and free states and territories. While referring to the map and pointing out the appropriate locations, review Dred Scott’s story by tracing the places where he lived during his lifetime. Have students read Introduction: Background and Facts of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) (Handout A).

Write the Key Question on the board: To what extent did the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision align with the principles espoused in the Founding documents of the United States? Keeping this question in view for students, have them work in small groups to read the five documents in the lesson, discussing and answering the sourcing questions and comprehension questions as they go.

Working individually or in groups as best suits the teacher’s procedures and student needs, have students write a response to the Key Question, citing documents to support their opinion.

    Conduct an all-class discussion in which students reflect on the impact of the case on identity, law, future policy and enforcement, culture, and sectionalism. Discussion starter questions might include the following:

    1. How did the debates surrounding the spread of slavery reflect different conceptions of such constitutional principles as equality, individual rights, property rights, and federalism?
    2. How did these debates express different conceptions of American identity?
    3. Historians say that the Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, rather than settling the issue of slavery for all time, made civil war more likely. Why might this be the case? What was the logical next step for how slavery would be addressed in further westward expansion?
    4. Why did different cultural and economic traditions develop in the North and South?
    5. Sometimes students think about these issues simplistically, conceiving northerners to be united in virtuous abolitionism and all southerners to be evil slaveholders. What did you learn through this lesson that brings more complexity to the issue? To what extent are both the North and the South guilty of perpetuating the institution of slavery?
    6. To what extent do you find it odd that two of the most influential voices on different sides of the expansion of slavery question were both from Illinois, a free state?

    At the conclusion of the lesson, the teacher might read this epilogue to the class and ask the students to consider to what extent Dred Scott’s legal fight enabled him to enjoy the blessings of liberty.


    Mrs. Emerson’s second husband, Dr. Calvin Chaffee, was a staunch abolitionist. By 1857, he was a Massachusetts congressman and was stunned to learn that his wife owned the famous Dred Scott. Under Missouri law, only a citizen of Missouri could emancipate a slave. Therefore, Dr. and Mrs. Chaffee transferred ownership of the Scotts to Taylor Blow, the son of Scott’s former owner, who himself was opposed to slavery. On May 26, two months after the Supreme Court decided that Scott would always be a slave with no political rights, Taylor Blow emancipated his slaves, including Dred and Harriet Scott and their daughters. Dred Scott worked as a porter [one who carries luggage] at a St. Louis hotel, and Harriet took in laundry to help support their family. On September 17, 1858, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis as a free man.

    Related Resources