Education: Lesson Details

Study Guide: Activities and Procedures


Section 1 - READING

Students read a brief biography of Dix, an essay on Dix and Pierce, and the Memorial to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Background Essay: Miss Dorothea Dix
Background Essay: Franklin Pierce's 1854 Veto
Annotated & Abridged Document:
Memorial Of Miss D. L. Dix To the Senate And House Of Representatives Of The United States



Students answer the following questions in a teacher-led discussion of the Dix Memorial to the Senate and House of Representatives.

1.) In paragraphs 21 and 22, Dix maintains that insanity is more an urban than a rural problem. In the United States of the 1850s, would this be an important part of the need for federal intervention? Given acceleration of urbanization apparent by the 1850s, what would that suggest about the future demographics of insanity?

2.) In paragraph 153, how does Dix describe the efforts of almshouse keepers and prison wardens to care for the insane?

3.) According to Dix in paragraph 200, what makes America great? Does she stress material prosperity or moral goodness? How does she connect the self-image of Americans to her reform goals?

4.) By making patients in insane asylums "wards of the nation," what kind of relationship between disabled and nondisabled people is implied?

5.) Aside from humanitarian considerations, how would the bill improve American society? What are the practical benefits of Dix’s proposal?

6.) How does Dix argue that her plan is constitutional?

7.) In what ways would this bill increase the size and functions of the federal government?



Students in small groups read the Senate Debates, Pierce’s veto, and Seward’s response to the veto, answering the following questions:

Annotated & Abridged Document:
Senate Debates On The Land-Grant Bill For Indigent Insane Persons, February 21, 1854

1.) How does Senator Foot argue for passage of the Dix bill? Do his arguments rest more on reason or on emotion? Which seems more effective?

2.) How does Senator Foot deal with the constitutionality of the bill? How does he use historical precedent to make his case for the constitutionality of the bill?

3.) How is Dorothea Dix portrayed in paragraph 17? Is her personal image a powerful inducement for Senators to vote for the bill?

Annotated & Abridged Document:
Franklin Pierce's 1854 Veto

1.) What does Pierce think of the general idea of improving the lives of people with mental disabilities?

2.) How did the Dix bill work? What were its provisions?

3.) Given the answer to the first question, why does Pierce veto the Dix bill? According to Pierce, how would the bill damage the nation?

4.) What is Pierce’s view of the proper relationship between the states and the federal government? Do you agree or disagree? Should federal lands have been sold to support care of the indigent insane?

Annotated & Abridged Document:
Senator William Seward Responds To Franklin Pierce's Veto

1.) What does Seward have to say about Pierce’s view that the Dix bill would make the federal government responsible for all impoverished Americans?

2.) How does Seward interpret the Constitution and the nature of the Union? Whose view would most likely prevail today?

In pairs, students discuss and record the arguments for and against passage of the Land-Grant Act on behalf of the indigent insane as found in the Senate Debates and Pierce’s veto. The class comes back together and the teacher leads a discussion of various scenarios of selling or not selling federal land to fund insane asylums.



Students are encouraged to explore the long-term implications of the failure of the Dix bill. They report back to the class as they uncover evidence found in their research. Research can be done in the Disability History Website, elsewhere on the web, or in libraries. Some suggestions for further exploration:

1.) When does the federal government assume some responsibility for care for people with mental disabilities?

2.) What other issues involved controversies over federal vs. state responsibilities in American history?

3.) Were there other exposés besides Dix's that reveal abuses in the care of people with disabilities? How did their rhetorical approaches compare with those of Dix? Were they effective in affecting real changes?

4.) How does state and federal responsibility for people with disabilities work today?


Dain, Norman, Concepts of Insanity in the United States, 1789-1865 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1964).

Gollaher, David, Voice for the Mad: The Life of Dorothea Dix (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

Grob, Gerald N., The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

Katz, Michael B., In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York: BasicBooks, 1986).

Rothman, David, The Discovery of the Asylum (Boston: Little Brown, 1971).

Tomes, Nancy, The Art of Asylum-Keeping: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Origins of American Psychiatry (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984).