Our political problem now is “Can we, as a nation, continue together permanently—forever—half slave, and half free?” The problem is too mighty for me. May God, in his mercy, superintend the solution.
—Abraham Lincoln to George Robertson, August 15, 1855
In this unit, students will trace the development of sectionalism in the United States as it was driven by the growing dependence upon, and defense of, black slavery in the southern states. Initially seen as contrary to freedom but tolerated in order to produce the U.S. Constitution, by the 1830s the "peculiar institution" found advocates who saw it as a "positive good." Its expansion into Missouri, southern outrage over federal tariffs, and westward expansion into new territory produced a volatile and persistent debate over slavery that increasingly threatened to divide the American union. By 1860, the nation found an old Democratic Party split over the right to extend slavery into federal territory, and a new Republican Party nominating an anti-slavery, though not abolitionist, president. When Abraham Lincoln's election produced no national consensus to settle the matter of slavery's future, a southern "secession" sealed the fate of the Union.
What characterized the debates over American slavery and the power of the federal government for the first half of the 19th century? How did regional economies and political events produce a widening split between free and slaveholding states in antebellum America? Who were the key figures and what were their arguments regarding the legitimacy of slavery and the proper role of the national government in resolving its future in the American republic? This unit of study will equip students to answer these questions through the use of interactive maps, primary texts, and comparative biographies.
Upon completing the lessons in this unit, students should be able to do the following:
Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
Download the blackline masters for this lesson, available here as a PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
Each activity in this unit of study is designed for use as a stand-alone lesson, comprising three forty-five minute class periods. Taken all together, the lessons provide an overview of the causes of sectionalism that led to the American Civil War. Since available time and curriculum needs vary by classroom, the following guidelines for use are provided:
Another approach you can use is to skim each lesson plan to see what specific activities each offers and choose only those that suit specific course objectives and content. Each lesson plan indicates how best to streamline that lesson's content and will suggest essential versus more rigorous treatment of a given subject.
Q. Who was called the "Father of the Constitution"? A. James Madison, of Virginia, because in point of erudition and actual contributions to the formation of the Constitution, he was preeminent.
—From Constitution Q and A on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom
…if the letter of the Constitution is strictly adhered to, and if no flexibility is allowed, no power could be exercised by Congress, and all the good that might be reasonably expected from an efficient government would be entirely frustrated.
— James Madison, February 2, 1791, from James Madison Debates the Constitutionality of a National Bank on The James Madison Center, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President
The Framers gave us a document durable and flexible enough to take us from the agrarian land of the 18th century, of the musket, the axe and the plow-to the country we know today, of the Internet and the human genome and a thousand different cultures living together in one nation like a glittering mosaic.
—Michael Beschloss at the ceremony to unveil page two of the Constitution in its new encasement, September 15, 2000, in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building, Washington, D.C. (available on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom)
Even in its first 30 years of existence, the U.S. Constitution had to prove its durability and flexibility in a variety of disputes. More often than not, James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," took part in the discussion. Madison had been present at the document's birth as the mastermind behind the so-called Virginia Plan. He had worked tirelessly for its ratification including authoring 29 Federalist Papers, and he continued to be a concerned guardian of the Constitution as it matured. However, it should be noted that Madison chose not to allow his notes from the Constitutional Convention to be published until after his death,
In the early years of the Republic, Madison held a variety of offices, both appointed and elected. At other times, he was part of the loyal opposition. Both in office and out, he played an important role in the continuing debate [stet]. Virtually every important event was precedent-setting, raising crucial questions about how the constitution should be interpreted and implemented. How should the Constitution be applied to situations not specified in the text? How can balance be achieved between the power of the states and that of the federal government? How can a balance of power be achieved among the three branches of the federal government? In this curriculum unit, Madison's words will help students understand the constitutional issues involved in some controversies that arose during Madison's presidency.
On the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin observed that he had often wondered whether the design on the president's chair depicted a rising or a setting sun. "Now at length," he remarked, "I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."
Franklin's optimism came only after many months of debate and argumentation over the form of government that would best secure the future safety and happiness of the young American republic. At times it seemed that the Convention would fail as a result of seemingly irreconcilable views between the delegates, especially on the questions of selecting representatives to Congress, the relationship of the national and state governments, and the powers of the president. After a month of deadlock over the issue of representation, Franklin himself had called for a prayer because "mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom."
The delegates at the 1787 Convention faced a challenge as arduous as those who worked throughout the 1780s to initiate reforms to the American political system. Even before the Convention was authorized to convene, the road to reform was paved with resistance, especially from those who believed that the Articles of Confederation were in little or no need of amendment. In the end, the Convention met, and by the almost miraculous "Connecticut Compromise" was able to fulfill its task of recommending improvements to the American form of government, with only three delegates refusing to sign the final document. Although many challenges to ratification lay ahead, the work of the Convention placed the Union on a more stable basis, and the Constitution continues to be the foundation of American government and political thought to this day.
In this unit, students will examine the roles that key American founders played in creating the Constitution, and the challenges they faced in the process. They will learn why many Americans in the 1780s believed that reforms to the Articles of Confederation were necessary, and the steps taken to authorize the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia. They will become familiar with the main issues that divided delegates at the Convention, particularly the questions of representation in Congress and the office of the presidency. Finally, they will see how a spirit of compromise, in the end, was necessary for the Convention to fulfill its task of improving the American political system.
Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF, such as this one for Lesson Plan One (see sidebar under "Additional Student/Teacher Resources" for full list of files).
Download the PDFs for each lesson, such as this one for Lesson Plan One. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
All sorts of information can be found on the Internet, including misinformation, false information, and sheer fabrication.
No central authority reviews and verifies the content of web pages on the Internet. You as an individual are wholly responsible for evaluating the quality and validity of the information presented. Assessing Internet information, based on a few simple indicators can provide students in the humanities with constant practice in thinking critically about the nature of research and evidence.