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Roger Taney and Injustice

90 min

Essential Question

  • How does the virtue of justice support liberty and equality for all?  

Guiding Questions

  • How can you tell if a law is unjust?  
  • How can you respect the rights and dignity of all people? 

Learning Objectives

  • Students will analyze the story of Roger Taney to identify examples of not upholding justice, which damages others’ inalienable rights and dignity. 
  • Students will analyze primary sources to think critically about the decisions and opinions of the past related to justice.  
  • Students will reflect on examples of injustice in the present day and how to redress them.

Student Resources

Teacher Resources

  • Analysis Questions 
  • Virtue in Action  
  • Journal Activity
  • Sources for Further Reading  
  • Virtue Across the Curriculum  

  • Injustice: To harm others by applying unequal rules and damaging another’s inalienable rights and dignity.
  • Popular sovereignty: A political policy under which residents of a territory voted on whether slavery should be allowed or not.
  • Secession: Withdrawal from the Union of the United States of America.
  • Combustible: Easily inflamed.
  • Travesty: A grossly incorrect representation of something.
  • Manumitted: To voluntarily free enslaved individuals
  • Degraded: With the help and support of someone or something.
  • Ominous: Another word for threatening.
  • Furor: Another word for rage.
  • Scrupulously: To do something carefully.
  • Impartial: To be neutral.
  • Contentious: To be fierce.
  • Avert: To prevent.
  • Conferred: To be granted.
  • Exacerbated: To make a bad situation worse.
  • Maxim: A general truth.
  • Contemporaries: People living at the same time as each other.


  • The following lesson asks students to consider the vice of injustice through the hubris decisions made by Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision. Students will engage with the story of Roger Taney as they consider the question: How does the virtue of justice support liberty and equality for all?  
  • The main activity in this lesson requires students to read and analyze a narrative that explores how Roger Taney chose to act unjustly to try to save the Union. Students may work individually, in pairs, or small groups as best fits your classroom. The analysis questions provided can be used to help students comprehend and think critically about the content. As the teacher, you can decide which questions best fit your students’ needs and time restraints.    
  • An extension activity is provided for students to analyze primary sources. In the activity, they will think critically about the decisions and opinions of the past related to justice. 
  • Lastly, the lesson includes sources used in this lesson for further reading and suggestions for cross-curricular connections.  


  • Ask the students to respond to the following prompt: Write about a time in your life when you had good intentions to solve a problem, but things didn’t turn out as planned.  
  • After giving them some time to reflect and write, ask students to volunteer to share their experiences. Follow up with:  
    • Were your intentions well-meaning or selfish?  
    • Did you have enough information to offer a solution?  
    • Were you intervening in a problem you were ill-equipped to solve?  
    • Why do you think bad consequences resulted from your intervention despite your good intentions? 
  • Transition: Explain that many important leaders in politics, the military, business, or local communities have made decisions that had good intentions but resulted in making the problem even worse. Tell students they will explore a famous example of such a scenario in the Dred Scot decision before the Civil War.  


  • Transition to the Roger Taney and Injustice Narrative. Students will learn and analyze the story of Roger Taney and the Dred Scott decision to understand injustice.  
  • Scaffolding Note: It may be helpful to instruct students to do a close reading of the text. Close reading asks students to read and reread a text purposefully to ensure students understand and make connections. For more detailed instructions on how to use close reading in your classroom, use these directions. Additional reading strategies are provided for other options that may meet your students’ needs. 
  • Essential Vocabulary: 
    • Popular sovereignty: A political policy under which residents of a territory voted on whether slavery would be allowed or not. 
    • Secession: Withdrawal from the Union of the United States of America. 
    • Combustible: Easily inflamed. 
    • Travesty: A grossly incorrect representation of something. 
    • Manumitted: To voluntarily free enslaved individuals. 
    • Degraded: To be inferior. 
    • Ominous: Another word for threatening. 
    • Furor: Another word for rage.  
    • Scrupulously: To do something carefully. 
    • Impartial: To be neutral. 
    • Contentious: To be fierce. 
    • Avert: To prevent. 
    • Conferred: To be granted. 
    • Exacerbated: To make a bad situation worse. 
    • Maxim: A general truth. 
    • Contemporaries: People living at the same time as another.
  • Transition to the analysis questions. Have students work individually, with partners, or as a whole class to answer the questions. 
  • Scaffolding Note: If there are questions that are not necessary to your students’ learning or time restraints, then you can remove those questions. 
  • Analysis Questions 
    • Why was the United States in a combustible situation in 1857?  
    • What was Roger Taney’s position regarding slavery and the rights of Blacks, and how did his position change over time in the years prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court? Why do you think his position regarding the slavery controversy changed so much from justice to injustice?  
    • Once he was appointed to the Supreme Court, where did Taney’s sympathies lie? Did he act for justice or some other purpose?  
    • What was Taney’s hope regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case? 
    • What were the most important elements of the Dred Scott majority opinion written by Chief Justice Taney? Did they support the ideal of justice? Did Taney’s opinion promote a healthy constitutional republic and civic virtue?  
    • Chief Justice Taney hoped that his opinion in Dred Scott’s case would be the solution to the nation’s slavery controversies. Why was this not the case?  
    • How was President Lincoln’s approach to the slavery controversy different from that of Taney? How did Lincoln support the natural rights ideals of a constitutional republic and support the ideal of civic virtue?  
    • How did Justice Benjamin Curtis’s dissent contradict Chief Justice Taney’s reasoning?  
  • Optional Activity: Excerpts from the Majority and Dissenting Opinions  
    • You may use this additional activity to help students understand the opinions of the Dred Scott decision.  
    • Distribute the Analyzing Primary Source Documents handout. Read the excerpts and answer the following questions.  

Assess & Reflect

Virtue in Action  

  • Instruct students, based on the information available in the Roger Taney and Injustice narrative, what arguments would you have made for Dred Scott’s freedom if you had been his attorney? What arguments would you have made against his freedom if you had been the attorney for the opposing side?  
  • Have students outline the arguments that might have been made by the attorneys in Dred Scott’s case.  
  • After reading the excerpts from the majority and the dissent, ask students, in what ways, if at all, would you modify or enhance your previous attorney arguments? What do you think were the most persuasive arguments in each of the opinion excerpts? 


Injustice Journal Activity  

  • Have students self-reflect and answer the following questions in their journals: 
    • The Dred Scot decision is an example of injustice at the national level, but local and individual acts of injustice can have a great impact as well.
      • Where have you witnessed or experienced injustice in your own life? If no examples come to mind, think of examples from current events or in the news that you have heard about, although you may not have experienced them personally. In what ways can you push back against these acts?


Sources & Further Reading  

  • Explore the following list for additional sources and further reading on Roger Taney.  
    • David Blight: “Could the War have been Prevented?”  
    • Finkleman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Bos- ton: 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  

  • Below are corresponding literature suggestions to help you teach about justice and injustice across the curriculum. Sample prompts are provided for the key corresponding works. For the other suggested works, or others that are already part of your curriculum, create your own similar prompts.  
    • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling 
      • Consider the actions of Dolores Umbridge toward Harry Potter after he claimed that Lord Voldemort returned. Why do you think Umbridge thought she was right to treat Harry in that manner? How did she justify her unjust actions? 
    • The Giver, by Lois Lowry 
      • How were the decisions made by the government in Jonas’ Community unjust? How do they rationalize their actions? 

Student Handouts

Related Resources