Education: Lesson Details


Following a successful campaign to persuade states to construct large institutions to care for people with mental disabilities, Dorothea Dix turned her sights on the larger coffers of the federal government. Her lobbying convinced Congress to pass an act providing federal lands to the states; these lands could then be sold to fund asylums for “the indigent insane.” President Franklin Pierce vetoed this legislation in 1854 on constitutional grounds, arguing that the law violated states’ right position. The bill would never go into effect. The controversy over the Dix Bill, as it was called, illuminates a conflict, one that continues even today, over what we expect our federal, state, and local governments to do.

This lesson focuses on the positions taken by Dix and Pierce. Students learn about how mid-nineteenth-century Americans argued about governmental responsibilities. Readings include Dix’s petition to the federal government, Pierce’s veto, and congressional debates over the land-grant bill.

“The Duties of Government: Dix vs. Pierce” addresses the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the responsibilities and obligations of government at the state and federal levels, and the place of disability in the formation of a social welfare system in the United States. At this time, reformers and lawmakers saw disability as a primary cause of poverty and considered impoverished people with disabilities to be wards of the public. Although the debate over how government should respond to disability is the thematic focus of the lesson, this lesson can also be used to examine -- from an unusual angle -- the issue of states’ rights during the fractious decade of the 1850s. This lesson could also highlight the federal/state divide in a civics class.

Questions To Consider

1. In the 1850s, what were the obligations of government to provide care for people with mental disabilities, and how would the Dix bill change those responsibilities?

2. How do the various protagonists in these debates understand the United States Constitution and, in particular, the Tenth Amendment, which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."?

3. Why does the Dix bill fail? What other issues, in particular sectional divisions, did the nation's leaders face during the 1850s? In what ways might those other issues have impacted the Dix bill?

4. What were the possible long-term implications of the failure of the Dix bill?