Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Lesson 1: Factory vs. Plantation in the North and South

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Anti-slavery poster form the 1850s

Anti-slavery poster form the 1850s

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

By 1860, the differences between the North and South had become so great that Northerners and Southerners felt as if they belonged to two different countries. What were some of these differences? Which ones were important enough to fight about? Explain to students that they are going to study life in the United States in the years before the Civil War to gain a better understanding of why people grew willing to fight to defend their way of life.

Many of the documents students will look at reflect the lives of ordinary people, those who would fill the ranks of the armies and those on the home front supporting the war effort. Public support for a war comes more easily when those who have to fight feel they are defending what is important in their own lives. Students will learn about everyday life before the Civil War in the South and North to begin to understand which differences were significant.

Guiding Questions

  • What differences existed between ordinary Americans living in the North and those living in the South in the years before the Civil War?
  • What important issues are reflected in the differences between life in the North and the South? What kinds of changes were taking place in the United States at the time?

Learning Objectives

  • List three differences and three similarities between life in the North and the South in the years before the Civil War.
  • Discuss how these differences contributed to serious disagreements between the North and South.


If one region's economic needs threaten another region's needs, conflict can arise. One of the significant developing differences between the North and South in the years before the Civil War was their economies. The South was very dependent on cotton. Cotton, which could be processed in greater quantities after the invention of the cotton gin, depended on slavery.

In the North, where slavery was illegal, workers had to be paid. Though conditions were often quite poor for the working class in the North, the flourishing factory system held great promise for many: employment, the possibility of advancement, and cheaper goods.

Northerners depended on the federal government to build the infrastructure—such as roads and railroads—necessary for its developing industries. In a time before income taxes, this infrastructure could be built only with tax money raised largely through tariffs on imported goods the South needed, while the North was developing factories for producing such goods on its own.

By 1860, both the North and the South were moving toward systems of mass production. In the North, factories were springing up. In the South, plantations had developed. In surprising ways, these systems resembled each other in their attempt at mass production. The similarities helped workers realize the country needed to improve the treatment of its workforce. The differences must have made Southerners feel it would be quite difficult to abandon a system on which their entire economy depended.

Preparation Instructions

The Civil War erupted after a long history of compromises and sectional debates over representation, federalism, tariffs and territories. Though many of the political differences are beyond the scope of the intermediate curriculum, students can use their analysis of archival documents to begin to appreciate the differences between the North and South and the changes afoot in the United States that contributed to the developing conflict.

Before you begin to teach this unit, review the suggested activities and familiarize yourself with the websites involved. Select, download and duplicate, as necessary, any documents you want the class to use.

You may wish to provide students with a copy of the Document Analysis Worksheet, available through the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom, to guide them as they review the documents in this unit.

The purpose of this lesson is to prepare students with background information for understanding the causes of the Civil War. You can find information on the causes of the Civil War online, accessible through a link from the EDSITEment resource The Internet Public Library.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Factory vs. Plantation

To set up the idea of a conflict that would cause even friends and relatives to disagree and fight with each other, encourage discussion of the following:

Can anyone in the class describe an incident they witnessed or heard as an example of how any of the following potential conflicts can lead to a serious disagreement?

  1. What one person was doing prevented someone else from doing what he or she needed to do.
  2. One person was so different from another that neither could understand the other or that their needs were conflicting.
  3. Someone was treating someone else very badly.
Factory vs. Plantation in the North and South:

“During the first half of the 19th century, economic differences between the regions also increased. By 1860 cotton was the chief crop of the South, and it represented 57 percent of all U.S. exports. The profitability of cotton, known as King Cotton, completed the South's dependence on the plantation system and its essential component, slavery.

The North was by then firmly established as an industrial society. Labor was needed, but not slave labor.”

—Source: "Civil War, American." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000

“Five years ago Mr. and Mrs. Kirke Boott took up their residence at Lowell where there was then no building except one or two little hovels, but last night we went over very extensive cotton manufacturies that have sprung up since that time, and on every side fresh ones are starting into life. This State is so very bad for agricultural purposes that they are driven to manufactures to gain a livelihood?”

—Margaret Hall, writing about Lowell, Massachusetts
October 13, 1827

1. If possible, give class members an opportunity to view a map of Population Engaged in Manufacturing and Trade (a link from the EDSITEment resource, The Center for the Liberal Arts), on screen or in a color copy. Point out the differences between the North and South. Counties with the most manufacturing are indicated in red. Notice that the North is almost completely red. Discuss the differences between the North and South with students. Help students to recognize the effect of these differences at the time before the Civil War: People disagree if they feel prevented from doing what they need to do. People need to make a living.

2. Lead the class in comparing the rules of management for a factory and a plantation to model the process of comparing documents. The students can use the worksheet Factory and Plantation Rules Compared, available as a .pdf file, to facilitate the gathering and organizing of their data. Lewiston Mill Rules (factory) and Plantation Management, De Bow's xiv (February 1853) are available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Whole Cloth. (Note: Background information on the development of the American factory system is available in The First American Cotton Mill Began Operation: December 20, 1790 from The Library of Congress' America's Library, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory.)

For this activity, you may wish to group students in pairs; assign each pair one or two of the mill rules, and read aloud one of the plantation rules. Ask the pairs to identify any of their rules that are similar to the plantation rules as you read them.

After going through all the rules, discuss the similarities and differences between the factory and plantation systems' treatment of the workforce. Hypothesize about the design of the rules. Why were they deemed necessary or desirable?

3. If desired, the students can now work in small groups to conduct a similar analysis with the following sets of documents:

Compare the physical set-up of factory and plantation using the following documents:

Compare the following songs of protest:

  • Factory (North):
    1836 Song Lyrics Sung by Protesting Workers at Lowell:
    Oh! isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
    Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
    Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
    For I'm so fond of liberty,
    That I cannot be a slave

    Source: Liberty Rhetoric and Nineteenth Century Women, a link from the EDSITEment resource History Matters
  • Plantation (South):
    Go Down Moses (traditional spiritual):
    1. When Israel was in Egypt's Land:
      Let my people go.
      Oppress'd so hard they could not stand,
      Let my people go
    2. Refrain:
      Go down Moses
      'way down in Egypt's land
      Tell ol' Pharaoh,
      Let my peoples go.
    3. Thus saith the Lord, bold Moses said:
      Let my people go.
      If not I'll smite your firstborn dead,
      Let my people go.:
    4. O let us all from bondage flee;
      Let my people go.
      And let us all in Christ be free!
      Let my people go.

Compare workers and machines:


To culminate this lesson, ask students to demonstrate their knowledge of working life before the Civil War, with an emphasis on differences between the North and South. Students with sufficient access to technology can search for additional documents in the EDSITEment-approved resources listed below. Here are some examples of activities that students may wish to undertake to express what they have learned through this lesson (specific project ideas should always be pre-approved by the teacher):

  • Set up a timeline display of the meaningful documents studied in the lesson, with appropriate captions.
  • Create a piece of historical fiction set in the 1850s that draws on the primary documents studied in the lesson. For example, students could write journal entries in the voice of someone working during the period before the Civil War in either a plantation or a factory, describing key elements of their workday based on the photographs, maps, diagrams, songs, and sketches studied in the lesson.
  •  Write an expository essay that uses examples from the lesson to compare and contrast the working conditions in the North, and slave labor in the South.
  • Teachers can have students choose a related research topic around which to pursue an inquiry-based primary research project. Each student should write a report on their topic in the style of an encyclopedia entry, which will be published digitally on a class wiki. Suggested research topics could be: the 13th and 14th Amendments; the cotton gin; Lowell, Massachusetts; labor laws of the 19th century; child labor in the north and south; and Plessy v. Ferguson.



The Basics

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Economic Transformation
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Globalization
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets