The Dred Scott Decision: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

The Dred Scott Decision APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

Dred Scott v. Sanford is a landmark Supreme Court case in the pre-Civil War era. Dred Scott decision APUSH questions will likely cover the impact this decision had on the social and political climate in antebellum America.

What is the Dred Scott decision?

Dred Scott v. Sanford was a 1857 Supreme Court case in which a slave, Dred Scott, tried to sue for his freedom on the grounds that his master moved him to a free territory. The judge ruled against Scott in what is often considered one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in American History.

In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled that:

  • Since slaves are property of their masters, a slave is not automatically granted his freedom when his master moves him to a free state or territory.
  • Slaves are not citizens and therefore have no legal right to sue.
  • The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, and that the federal government could not prohibit slavery in any state or territory.

Important year to note for the Dred Scott decision:

1857: The year the Supreme Court decided the Dred Scott case

Why is the Dred Scott decision so important?

The Dred Scott decision deeply divided the country and helped push it to the brink of civil war. The South heralded the decision as the federal government’s sanction of slavery; the North lambasted the decision for the same reason. Those with a stake in the slave economy believed that the Dred Scott decision opened the door for the spread of slavery nationwide, as the court’s decision suggested that popular sovereignty itself was unconstitutional as a means of deciding the slavery question.

The decision was at the forefront of debates during the 1858 and 1860 elections, with Abraham Lincoln being one of its more outspoken critics. In the wake of the controversy, Republicans swept into Congress and the White House, the South seceded, and war loomed on the horizon.

What are some historical people and events related to the Dred Scott decision?

  • Dred Scott: the slave who filed suit against his master
  • Roger Brooke Taney: the justice who wrote the majority opinion
  • John C. Calhoun: a Southern statesman who promoted the federal government’s defense of slavery, the lawful right of slaveowners to move their slaves into any territory, and Southern secession. The Dred Scott decision was largely seen as the Supreme Court’s adoption of Calhoun’s doctrine.
  • Missouri Compromise (1820): legislation that prohibited slavery in states and territories north of the 36°30 and west of Missouri; declared unconstitutional by the Dred Scott decision.
  • Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854): legislation revoking the Missouri Compromise and allowing new states and territories to decide the legality of slavery based on popular sovereignty

What example question about the Dred Scott decision might come up on the APUSH exam?

“Freemen of Ohio! Will you dishonor the dead? Will you despoil the living? Will you deprive posterity of its inheritance, by sanctioning the fraud thus practiced on the conservative, constitutional, anti-slavery sentiment, by the profession of which the Democratic party achieved success in the late contest? Friends of Squatter Sovereignty! Will you endorse a doctrine which mocks your opinions, which disregards your wishes, which tramples on your rights as members of the Democratic party? If the Supreme Court is right, your doctrine is a delusion. Will you agree that it is so, because degenerate judges, in a pretended decision, not binding on you or on the country, pretend that the doctrines of Calhoun are the true doctrines of those who framed the Constitution?”
-Pamphlet distributed in Ohio in response to the Dred Scott decision (Source)

The Dred Scott decision divided the Democratic Party by
A) placating moderates while motivating radicals to call for the immediate secession of the South.
B) outraging moderates who favored abolition, causing them to defect to the Republican party.
C) pitting moderates in favor of popular sovereignty against radicals in favor of expanding slavery.
D) upsetting supporters of Calhoun’s doctrine while emboldening more moderate followers of Clay.



The correct answer is (C). In his majority opinion, Justice Taney declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and brought into question the practice of popular sovereignty. Moderate Democrats were in favor of popular sovereignty, the practice of allowing states and territories to decide the matter of slavery locally, as a means to compromise and preserve the union. When Taney criticized this practice, moderate Democrats were concerned that this precedent would shake the nation’s stability. Radical Democrats viewed the decision as a confirmation of Calhoun’s pro-slavery ideas. The difference of opinion regarding the Dred Scott case fractured the party and paved the way for Republicans to take the White House.

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  • Sarah Bradstreet

    Sarah is an educator and writer with a Master’s degree in education from Syracuse University who has helped students succeed on standardized tests since 2008. She loves reading, theater, and chasing around her two kids.

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