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James Buchanan and the Dred Scott Decision

50 min
  • How did President James Buchanan’s response to the US Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) contrast with the United States’s highest principles?

Students will:

  • Trace the events surrounding the Dred Scott decision.
  • Examine President Buchanan’s statements regarding the Dred Scott decision and the spread of slavery.
  • Assess contemporary reactions to the Dred Scott decision expressed in newspaper editorials.
  • Evaluate various statements regarding the institution of slavery, considering to what extent those statements reflect our nation’s highest principles.

  • Handout A: James Buchanan and the Dred Scott Decision
  • Handout B: Editorial Analysis of the Dred Scott Decision
  • Handout C: Slavery and American Ideals

To create a context for this lesson, have students complete Constitutional Connection: Slavery and the Constitution.

Have students read Handout A: James Buchanan and the Dred Scott Decision and answer the questions.

As a large group, go over the questions to Handout A.

Ask students:

  • How would you assess Buchanan’s response to the Dred Scott decision, and his hope that the ruling would settle the controversy over the spread of slavery?
  • Ask students to brainstorm what America’s highest principles are. Did Buchanan’s response to the ruling reflect or contradict those principles?


Cut out and give eight students one slip each from Handout B: Editorial Analysis of the Dred Scott Decision.

Tell students they will now hear some quotes from editorials that ran in newspapers in 1857. Call on one student to read the quotation from his or her slip. The student should NOT reveal the information about the newspaper.

Ask the class whether the editorial supports the ruling or condemns it, and clarify any questions.

Next, ask students to assess whether the editorial ran in a Northern or Southern newspaper. Have the student inform the class as to the correct answer with the information on the slip. Designate a side of the room for “Northern” and “Southern” and have the student move to the correct side.

Repeat the process for the remaining students/editorials.

Once all have been completed, have the students with editorials give either a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to show their position on the ruling. What patterns are revealed?

Ask students what important constitutional principles are highlighted in the editorials. How do the editorial writers refer to concepts such as liberty, federalism, and equality? Editorials that oppose the Dred Scott decision point to such principles as the Founders’ ideals of liberty and equality. Those that support the Dred Scott decision reflect the Constitution’s guarantees of such principles as property rights and states’ powers. Students may say that property rights should never apply to “property” in people.


Distribute or put up an overhead of Handout C: Slavery and American Ideals. Students should follow directions on the Handout.

When students have finished, asked:

  • Which (if any) of these quotes is a good articulation of our nation’s highest principles.
  • What other quotes explain our highest principles?
  • How did President James Buchanan’s response to the Dred Scott decision demonstrate or fail to demonstrate those principles?
  • What do you think his response should have been?

Have students write a one-page paper explaining what America’s highest principles are and in what ways James Buchanan’s reaction to the Dred Scott decision demonstrated or failed to demonstrate those principles.

Student Handouts

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