Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: Slavery's Opponents and Defenders

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The Lesson


Idyllic cartoon of slaves thanking their master for taking care of them

Idyllic cartoon of slaves thanking their master for taking care of them. Accompanying text: “God bless you massa! you feed and clothe us. When we are sick, you nurse us, and when too old to work, you provide for us!” This represented the pro-slavery view of the ante-bellum South in its defense of the “peculiar institution.”

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), he was said to have remarked, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" Such was the impact Stowe's novel had in exposing the inhumanity of slavery. Selling 300,000 copies in its first year of publication, the book's popularity in the North revealed the growing sentiment against forcing people to live as chattel—human property that could be worked and disposed of practically at will.

Given the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin, one might ask how slavery could be defended as late as the 1850s? Many southerners justified it on social and economic grounds, following South Carolina Senator John Calhoun in calling it a "positive good." Others pointed to the example of Nat Turner, a well-treated, literate slave who instigated a rebellion in 1831 that resulted in the massacre of nearly sixty white men, women, and children before his capture, and the deaths of almost two hundred blacks at the hands of white mobs. To those who feared the emancipation of slaves because of the possibility of retaliation such as Turner's, slavery was indeed the "wolf by the ears," to use Jefferson's expression, that could not be safely let go.

While the morality and legality of slavery remained at the forefront of the controversy, considerations of the economics of slavery, its impact on human civilization and progress, and the personal experience of both slaves and slaveholders led the opposing sides to drift further away from resolving what had become a sectional crisis. This lesson plan will explore the wide-ranging debate over American slavery by presenting the lives of its leading opponents and defenders and the views they held about America's "peculiar institution."

Guiding Questions

  • What were the leading arguments against slavery in the antebellum era?
  • How did the advocates of American slavery defend the "peculiar institution"?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson students will be able to

  • Identify influential opponents and defenders of American slavery and compare their respective biographies
  • Explain the reasons given for and against the morality and legitimacy of slavery under the U.S. Constitution
  • Articulate an economic argument in favor of slavery and an opposing argument on behalf of free labor


To comprehend how the enslavement of some human beings could be justified, especially in a nation that based its own independence on the truth that "all men are created equal," one need only read the justifications that were offered during the development of the American republic. These arguments, and those of the opposing side, took shape in a nation growing in size and population while expanding both slavery and self-government. Ironically, some events aimed at freeing the slaves resulted in a hardening of the slaveholders' position as guardians of the "peculiar institution."

One example was Nat Turner's revolt, which took place in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. It backfired on the cause of emancipation in the South because of the fear engendered at the prospect of former slaves, now freed and traveling about the countryside, seeking revenge on the slaveholders and southern society in general. For an account of Turner's insurrection, in his own words, see "The Confessions of Nat Turner" at EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History.

Turner's revolt opened up a remarkably critical discussion of slavery the following year in the Virginia legislature in Richmond, particularly in the House of Delegates. Denunciations of its evils and enunciations of its benefits, both vehement, rang out in the house chamber. Crowds thronged into the gallery to hear the two-week debate on whether or not the gradual emancipation of slaves was feasible, advisable, or even desirable. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson, offered a plan that would slowly emancipate slaves, with the phase out of the system to be complete in about a hundred years. In the end, however, it was decided by a vote of 73 to 58 not to enact legislation that would begin the process of terminating slavery, but to wait for a later time when public opinion in the Commonwealth would be more ready to consider it. Thus, the historic opportunity was missed, and it would not resurface. The Virginia legislature would not seriously debate this issue again, nor for that matter, would any other southern legislature.

Frederick Douglass, in an 1848 speech (noted below), says of the slave, "He is deprived of an education." The historian Kenneth Stampp says, "No person, not even the master, was to teach a slave to read or write ..." Southern states reacted to Turner's insurrection by banning the education of slaves for fear that their literacy would lead them to read and adopt radical abolitionist sentiments. More generally, the decades that followed saw "King Cotton" entrench itself as the mainstay of the southern economy and a pillar of global commerce. In addition, the enslavement of the African on American soil became an essential part of a fiercely independent and paternalistic southern culture—a culture whose leaders became as strident in their defense of the "peculiar institution" as abolitionists were in condemning it.

For some abolitionists, their uncompromising stand on emancipation was matched only by their scorn for the U.S. Constitution, which they viewed as an unprincipled and corrupting compact. William Lloyd Garrison, for example, burned a copy of the Constitution to express his outrage over the federal fugitive slave law of 1850. "No union with slaveholders" was his rhetorical battle cry, and one that reflected the increasing division of the nation over the possible spread of slavery into the federal territories.

By the mid-1850s, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas would clash over the proper interpretation of the founding father's intentions regarding slavery and its ultimate demise (see Lesson Plan Three, "The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854" for details). As the federal government organized vast territories to the West, all parties to the debate over slavery's future looked on with interest—and marshaled arguments, accordingly. The arguments included in this lesson do not exhaust all of the positions held during the antebellum debate. They do illustrate important ones held by many Americans, and demonstrate why the slavery controversy eventually threatened the continuance of American's experiment in self-government.

Note: The study of slavery's opponents and defenders in the 19th-century will lead one to encounter images, language, descriptions, and opinions that some students may find offensive or unsettling. Sensitivity to these issues is recommended throughout this lesson.

Preparation Instructions

To teach this lesson about slavery's opponents and defenders, three activities are provided below. The first activity requires students to read about key figures in the debate over slavery, and the second and third activities involve students with the opposing arguments. Review the activities, then locate and bookmark websites and primary documents that you will use.

Five brief biographies of leading opponents and defenders of slavery, located at the following EDSITEment-reviewed weblinks:

Ten speeches (or excerpts) and writings that argue for or against slavery, located at the following EDSITEment-reviewed weblinks and PDF for this lesson:

The PDF created for this lesson contains five matrixes and charts and four writings that students will use to help them understand and organize the material. The resources that are contained in the PDF file are noted in each of the activities and the assessment and can be downloaded and printed for student use.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Biographies of Slavery's Opponents and Defenders

Students will compare and contrast the life stories of slavery's opponents and defenders by going to the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites to obtain information about their lives. A matrix for recording answers to questions about each viewpoint has been provided on pages 1-4 of the lesson's PDF.

(a) Three Opponents of Slavery: William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass
(b) Two Defenders of Slavery: John C. Calhoun and James Henry Hammond
Activity 2. The Morality and Legitimacy of Slavery Under the U.S. Constitution: Northern Abolitionist vs. Slaveholding Senator

In this activity, students will compare and contrast the ideas in two documents: one from the abolitionist orator and editor William Lloyd Garrison, and the other from the slaveholding Senator from South Carolina John C. Calhoun. Students will read Garrison's editorial:

A matrix has been provided on the last page of the PDF that contains questions on the documents and space for their answers. Download, print, and distribute copies of the articles and matrix to students to work on in class, or if desired, give them to students one or two class periods ahead of time, and assign them for homework

  • After students have read the two documents and answered the questions in the matrix, gather the class to discuss their findings. After the matrix has been completed by the class, give students time to ask questions and make comments about what they have learned. Ask them why Garrison excoriated the people of New England and the rest of the free states, and why Calhoun maintained that the South could not "concede an inch" on its position in regard to slavery. See if they noticed the role that temperament and personality played in the opinions and positions of these two men. Ask them to think about situations where an uncompromising stance on an issue would be a good thing, and where it might not be.
Activity 3. The Economics of Slavery: "Mud Sill" vs. Free Labor

The activity below contrasts the way a senator from the South and a former congressman from the North saw the economic argument for slavery. Divide students into small groups of four or five and instruct them to work together on their answers to the questions following each reading. Each group should appoint one person to write down the responses to the questions. After a sufficient amount of time, ask groups to give their answers to the questions and then lead them in a discussion of how slave labor compared with free labor in promoting opportunity and prosperity for both the individual and society.

(a) The Mudsill Theory: A Senator Defends Slavery

Have students read the following excerpt from Senator James Henry Hammond's March 4, 1858 speech to the U.S. Senate, located at the EDSITEment-reviewed website Africans in America, and answer the questions that follow (also available in worksheet form on page 9 of the PDF):

  • According to Sen. Hammond, what makes societies civilized and why did he think this justified the enslavement of black people in America?
  • What does Sen. Hammond mean by "the very mud-sill of society and of political government"? (Note: Instructor should define "mud-sill" for the students. It is the bottom sill or wooden beam in a foundation, which typically rests on the ground.)
  • According to Sen. Hammond, why is the South more civilized than the North?
  • Why does Sen. Hammond believe slaves exist in the North as well as the South? Who are these "slaves"?
  • Why does Sen. Hammond believe southern slaves have a better life than northern "slaves"?
(b) The Free Labor Theory: A Former Congressman Critiques Slavery

For a critique of Hammond's "mud sill" theory of labor and civilization, have students read an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln's Annual Address Before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society (September 30, 1859), found at the Illinois Historical Digitization Project accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters. The relevant excerpt from this address is included on pages 10-11 of the PDF. Answer the following questions, focusing on four paragraphs of the address that begin on page 247 (the paragraph beginning, "The world is agreed that labor is the source …"). These questions are also available in worksheet form on page 11 of the PDF.

  • Does Lincoln believe that how you make a living is a fixed or permanent condition?
  • According to Lincoln, in his day did most people (a) work for others, (b) work for themselves, or (c) hire laborers to work for them? Does Lincoln think this was different in the southern slaveholding states than in the northern free states?
  • Does Lincoln believe a poor person can become wealthy? If so, what is the path to prosperity?
  • How does Lincoln explain folks who remain "hired laborers" throughout their life?
  • According to Lincoln, what advantages does free labor have over the "mud sill" approach to making a living?

Note: The instructor should define "capital"—for example, "property or wealth that enables one to produce a good or service in exchange for money"—or have a student look it up in a dictionary. Ask them to then give a few examples, like a factory building and its machines used to make a product, or the computers, printers, and fax machines used in an office to provide a service to customers.


1. Students should now be able to discuss why slavery was opposed and defended so strongly and how this contributed to a widening breach between the North and South.

  • If a general knowledge on the part of the students is desired, ask them to give the main ideas of both the opponents and defenders of slavery in paragraph form.
  • If more specific knowledge on the part of the students is the goal, ask them to create a matrix contrasting the arguments of slavery's opponents and defenders on the following subjects:
    • morality of slavery
    • legitimacy of slavery under the U.S. Constitution
    • economics of slavery

Or, they can use the matrix provided on page 12 of the PDF for this lesson.

2. Based on the biographies of the main figures in this lesson, ask students to answer the following question: What were some key differences in the backgrounds of those who supported slavery and those who opposed it?

3. Divide the class into groups of four or five students each and ask them to brainstorm on the following question: Based on your knowledge of the concerns of each side in the slavery debate, give possible solutions that could have resulted in an eventual peaceful settlement between the two opposing camps. Instruct them to write down their ideas, and after sufficient time, reassemble as a class. Have each group take turns sharing its ideas. Then have the class as a whole decide which solutions are best. Students can be assessed on the basis of their effort and participation in the group.

Extending The Lesson

1. Northern Disparity: Racist Legislation vs. Individual Compassion

For the most part, slavery's opponents were located in the North and slavery's defenders were located in the South. However, this did not mean that the antebellum North was a uniformly friendly and welcoming place to the free black person. Although slavery was not legal in the northern states, free black residents of the states were not given the same civil or political rights, or treated with the same dignity and respect as white inhabitants. The following activities are designed to broaden student understanding of institutionalized racism in the North, and to allow them to identify with the experience of the "fugitive" or runaway slave. For examples of northern discrimination against blacks, have students read the article entitled Race-based Legislation in the North from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Africans in America, located at. Ask students to list examples of civil, political, and human rights denied to black Americans in the North. At the same time, there were also individual northerners who were willing to disobey the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and provide safe havens for runaway slaves who were attempting to escape to freedom in the North or Canada. Some states even passed "personal liberty" laws to prevent the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act from sending free or fugitive blacks south to bondage. For a simulated experience of traveling on the Underground Railroad, have students access the web-interactive The Underground Railroad of the EDSITEment-reviewed website Xpeditions, located at.

2. The Theology of Slavery: Arguments For and Against Slavery Based on the Bible

(a) Thomas R. Dew (1802–1846), chair of history, metaphysics, and political economy at William and Mary College and eventually its president, wrote "An Essay on Slavery" (1832) defending slavery on biblical grounds. See pages 13–14 of the PDF for this lesson to read an excerpt of his biblically-derived, pro-slavery essay.

(b) Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), no preacher by trade but well-versed in the Bible, once jotted down some notes critical of those who defended slavery on biblical grounds. See page 14 of the PDF for this lesson to read Lincoln's "Fragment on Pro-slavery Theology," which shows the problems with relying exclusively upon the Bible to defend slavery.

3. Firsthand Experience with the "Peculiar Institution"

Slavery was opposed and defended by those who had direct, firsthand experience with it. For personal reflections criticizing slavery, have students go to the EDSITEment-reviewed website "Documenting the American South" and read a speech excerpt by the former slave Frederick Douglass entitled Reception Speech at Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, England (May 22, 1846), (read pages 407–409), and the EDSITEment-reviewed website Africans in America, where students can read a journal entry (c. 1841) by a plantation wife, Frances "Fanny" Anne Kemble.

For personal reflections defending slavery, have students go to the EDSITEment-reviewed website Africans in America and read George Fitzhugh's "The Universal Law of Slavery" (1857) and the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Valley of the Shadow and read three, short articles (dated 1859 and 1860) printed in a Virginia county newspaper (scroll down to click on the titles, "The Danger of Insurrection," "Freedom and Slavery," and Northern Free Negroes and Southern Slaves"). Have students use the following chart to summarize the opposing viewpoints. Allow class time for students to share their findings with the rest of the class.

4. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)

To learn more about what slavery does to the master as well as the slave, have students read chapters VI and VII (pages 32–44) from Frederick Douglass's first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), located at The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington, from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project. Douglass would go on to write two more autobiographies: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1893). For a fictional account of the desperation of an American slave seeking freedom, have students read chapter 7 ("The Mother's Struggle") from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, located at the EDSITEment-reviewed website Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture.

5. The Economics of Slavery: Additional Interpretations of the Historical Record

For more information on slavery as an economic system, see the EDSITEment-reviewed website National Geographic News: How Slavery Helped Build a World Economy.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • 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 > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Economic Transformation
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Religion
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Lucas Morel, Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA)
  • Constance Murray, Grace Christian High School (Staunton, VA)


Activity Worksheets