Lesson Plan: Landmark Supreme Court Case: Dred Scott v Sandford

The Background of Dred Scott v. Sandford

Professors Martha Jones and Christopher Bracey discussed the background of the Dred Scott case including the atmosphere in the United States regarding slavery at the time.


The Supreme Court has the power to interpret the Constitution. Its rulings on cases determine the meaning of laws and acts of Congress and the president. Knowing the key decisions of the Supreme Court and the precedents they set is vital in understanding the meaning of laws, how our country has changed over time, and the direction the country is currently headed. In this lesson students will examine the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford.


  • STEP 1.

    As a class, view the following videos and answer the questions below to lay the foundation for students to understand this case:

    VIDEO CLIP: Background Clip 1 (1:30)

    VIDEO CLIP: Background Clip 2 (5:00)

    • Describe the atmosphere in the United States in the 1850s regarding slavery.

    • Explain why the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Dred Scott.

    • Describe the structure of the justices on the Supreme Court at the time and its significance leading up to the Dred Scott v Sandford case.

    • Explain the breakdown of the justices’ decision in this case.

    • Explain the circumstances of the Court the first time this case was heard.

    • How did Dred Scott acquire his attorneys?

    • Explain the conflict involving George Curtis being involved with this case.

    • Explain the circumstances of the Scott family while the case was being heard in Washington, DC.
  • STEP 2.

    Students can either work independently or in groups to view the following video clips. They should take notes using the handout below:

    HANDOUT: Supreme Court Case: Dred Scott v. Sandford (Google Doc)

  • VIDEO CLIP: Timeline (9:06)

    • Where did Dred Scott take his first case to court? Describe the elements to the initial case. What was the result?

    • Describe the scene and key factors of the cases heard in the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.

    • Explain the timeline of Dred Scott’s legal challenge in the lower courts. What were the important aspects of these cases?

    • Why did the Scott’s wait as long as they did to bring their freedom suit?

    • What was the result of the second trial? Why did the case not end there?
  • VIDEO CLIP: 4 Central Questions (3:31)

    • Explain the four questions the justices considered upon review of this case.
  • VIDEO CLIP: Chief Justice Taney's Opinion (2:45)

    • Explain Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in this case.

    • What were the implications?
  • VIDEO CLIP: Legacy (1:36)

    • Describe how the Dred Scott case is connected to the Marbury v. Madison decision?

    • Explain why the decision is “viewed as one of the worst the Court ever made” by critics.
  • STEP 3.

    As a class, discuss the significance of this case, the precedent it set, and its legacy.

  • STEP 4.

    Choose an activity from C-SPAN Classroom's Deliberations site to engage in a structured student-centered analysis of the case.

Additional Resource


  • Abolitionist
  • Complicit
  • Dred Scott
  • Fugitive Slave Act
  • George Curtis
  • Henry Geyer
  • Jurisprudence
  • Missouri Compromise
  • Montgomery Blair
  • Nationalism
  • Peter And Elizabeth Blow
  • Pro Bono
  • Reverdy Johnson
  • Roger Taney
  • Roswell Field
  • Territories
  • Whigs


Civil Rights & Civil LibertiesJudicial BranchSupreme Court CasesU.S. History


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