Lesson 2: Slavery's Opponents and Defenders

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