Heroes and Villains

Roger Taney and Injustice: The Dred Scott Decision

Students will explore the vice of injustice in this lesson on civic virtue.  Students will examine Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney and the Dred Scott (1857) decision that instituted great injustice against African Americans by arguing that they cannot be citizens.  This lesson contains a historical narrative, discussion guide, primary sources related to the majority decision and dissents in the Supreme Court case, and activities that guide students through analyzing the effect of injustice on constitutional principles and civil society.

Founding Principles

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTION: Can good intentions result in a bad consequence?

There are times when we want to help someone solve a problem. We might be guided by the best of intentions, but things sometimes do not go as planned or lead to unintended consequences.


  • Ask the students to respond to the following journal prompt, Was there ever a time in your life when you had good intentions to solve a problem but things did not turn out as planned?
  • After giving them some time to reflect and write, ask students to volunteer to share their experience. Follow up with:
    • Were your intentions good or self-serving?
    • Did you not have enough information to offer advice?
    • Were you intervening in a problem you were ill-equipped to solve?
    • Were you too arrogant in thinking you could have solved the problem?
    • Should you have just have not gotten involved?
    • Why did bad consequences result from your intervention despite your good intention?
  • Explain that many important leaders in politics, the military, business, or local communities have made decisions that had good intentions but bad consequences. Ask, How can I avoid this situation in the future with a greater sense of the virtue of humility?

About Launch Activities

This optional introductory activity is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.

Lesson Background

In the 1850s, the United States was deeply divided over the issue of slavery and its expansion into the West. The northern and southern sections of the country had been arguing over the expansion of slavery into the western territories for decades….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

David Blight: “Could the War have been Prevented?” http://voices.washingtonpost.com/house-divided/2010/11/david_blight_could_the_war_hav.html

Finkleman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Lincoln, Abraham, “The Dred Scott Decision: Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 26, 1857,” in, Roy P. Basler, ed. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Cambridge: Da Capo, 2001.

Maltz, Earl M. Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.

Newmyer, R. Kent. The Supreme Court under Marshall and Taney. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson,

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York: Harper, 2011.

Simon, James F. Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney: Slavery, Secession, and the President’s War Powers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), directed by Joss Whedon
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, two of the characters, Bruce Banner (The Hulk) and Tony Stark (Iron Man), attempt to use artificial intelligence to create a perfect robotic planetary system of defense. They don’t inform any of the other superheroes in the Avengers team not to mention any national leaders. Their arrogance has a great price when their powerful fleet of robots controlled by an evil Ultron program causes destruction around the globe. In the final scene, Ultron lifts the fictional city of Sokovia to an immense height above the earth to threaten human extinction.

“So you’re going for artificial intelligence and you don’t want to tell the team.”

“Right. That’s right, you know why, because we don’t have time for a city hall debate. I don’t want to hear the “man was not meant to meddle” medley. I see a suit of armor around the world.”

“Sounds like a cold world, Tony.”

“I’ve seen colder. This one, this very vulnerable blue one? It needs Ultron. Peace in our time. Imagine that.”

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