Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Taking Up Arms and the Challenge of Slavery in the Revolutionary Era

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


A  Map of 100 miles round Boston, 1775.

A Map of 100 miles round Boston, 1775.

Credit: From Map Collections: 1500-2003, image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Was the American Revolution inevitable? At what point did principled, verbal resistance to British imperial policies become armed conflict, rebellion, and, ultimately, revolution? What if other choices had been made by the British, other leaders had appeared for the colonists, or other modes of resistance had been attempted?

After five years of almost constant protests by American colonists, starting with the Stamp Act in 1765, a period of superficial calm reigned in the relations between England and the colonies from 1770 to 1773. However, the struggles of the past half-decade had created deep resentments and fissures that were not to be healed easily—or ever. In addition, the American colonists had begun to develop a network of communications—the Committees of Correspondence, which had been in operation since 1772—to share information about their grievances regarding British imperial policy.

The British imposition of the Tea Act in 1773 was the catalyst for a new round of protests, which this time would lead to open rebellion and then revolution. The Americans' responses—boycotts, non-importation, destruction of the tea—led to severe British reaction and retaliation in the form of the Intolerable Acts. These, in turn, set off a spiraling series of events that culminated in the first open hostilities in April of 1775.

During this evolving struggle, the American insurgents frequently denounced Britain's arbitrary and despotic policies by asserting that the Americans would not be "slaves" to England. Were these leaders conscious of the irony/hypocrisy/contradictions in their refusals to be "slaves" to English policies while maintaining thousands of enslaved Africans among them? Why was the rhetoric of enslavement and resistance to it so central to the American enterprise at this time?

This lesson is designed to help students understand the transition to armed resistance and the contradiction in the Americans' rhetoric about slavery through the examination of a series of documents. It is designed to be conducted over a several-day period, depending on the speed at which the groups work through the readings. However, teachers with time constraints can choose to utilize only one of the documents to illustrate the patriots' responses to the actions of the British.

Guiding Questions

  • Did the turn to armed resistance by the American colonists in 1775 indicate that a decision for independence/revolution had been made consciously at that point?
  • Why was the imagery and rhetoric of "enslavement" so important to these leaders and how does it relate to African chattel slavery in the colonies?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the specific events and factors that led to the beginning of armed resistance by the Americans.
  • Discuss the principles and ideals that influenced the thinking of the colonists.
  • Explore alternatives to armed resistance by the Americans at this point.
  • Analyze the connection between the start of armed resistance and the decision to declare independence in July of 1776.
  • Understand the irony of how many American patriots used the symbolism of their enslavement to England as a rallying cry for their cause, while enslaving Africans in America.


After the cessation of the French and Indian War in 1763, many of the inhabitants of the American colonies looked forward to a prosperous future under England's imperial protection. These people felt themselves intensely British; for almost all of them it would have been inconceivable to imagine that within little more than a decade they would be in open armed revolt against Great Britain, moving towards a formal declaration of independence.

How did the relationship between England and the North American colonies change so quickly and profoundly? The chronology from 1763 to 1773 shows a progressive worsening of the relations between the colonies and England, despite a respite between 1770 to 1773. The following links from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory website offer a good overview and timeline of this chain of events:

After the ill-advised passage of the Tea Act by Parliament in May 1773 and the Americans' response in the form of the Boston Tea Party and related events of late 1773-early 1774, the colonists' protests were transformed from somewhat disorganized street demonstrations and written appeals to more organized acts of resistance; eventually, armed hostilities developed in April of 1775. Good overviews of these two periods are offered at these American Memory pages:

Many overt references to the colonists' refusal to be enslaved to Britain appear in the written statements of this period. Patriot leaders made frequent assertions of their refusal to be "slaves" to England's arbitrary and despotic power, building on a tradition from British political rhetoric since the late seventeenth century. In addition, some patriot leaders, such as James Otis and Benjamin Rush, called on proponents of liberty to champion the cause of general freedom, not only for themselves but for blacks. These leaders made a direct connection between political and chattel slavery. One of the central conundrums of this period, for historians and students alike, is the contradiction between the Americans' increasingly strident rhetoric about their refusal to submit to their "enslavement" by the British Crown and the unwillingness of all but a tiny handful of patriot leaders to address the issue of the continuance of African chattel slavery by these same patriot leaders and their peers. Virginia governor Lord Dunmore's proclamation in November 1775 highlighted this issue by offering freedom to any enslaved people who would take up arms on the side of the British. Visit these sites for background about the overall issue of slavery and liberty as well as the Dunmore proclamation and its effect,:

. Finally, primary source documents and scholarly overviews deal with the relationship between the demands for political freedom from English "enslavement" and the institution of chattel slavery in the colonies. Teachers may want to read the following as background:

  • The Watchman's Alarm, EDSITEment-reviewed Africans in America. This is written by Baptist preacher and pamphleteer John Allen, who was especially harsh in his condemnation of slave owners who professed Christianity. He proposed to the American colonists that the "darkness of the night" they experienced was deserved punishment "for your iniquitous and disgraceful practice of keeping African slaves, a custom so evidently contradictory to the laws of God, and in direct violation of the charter of this province, and the natural and unalienable rights of mankind."

Preparation Instructions

1. Download or bookmark the following links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites for use by students during the lesson. Students can access all the primary sources in this lesson on the LaunchPad and PDFs:

2. Divide the students into the following groups of local Committees of Correspondence, the groups that were formed to communicate among the different colonies. Following the model established by colonial assemblies and other local governments, these committees took responsibility for relaying their government bodies' opinions of specific issues to other groups throughout the colonies (Note to teachers: the specific colonies you choose may vary, depending on what background knowledge your students bring, your location, and other factors. Depending on what lessons have come before this unit, you may need to provide students with some background information about the particular circumstances of the colony to which they are assigned. For example, make clear to them the more radical nature of movements in Massachusetts compared to some of the other colonies, etc.):

  • Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence
  • New York Committee of Correspondence
  • Pennsylvania Committee of Correspondence
  • Virginia Committee of Correspondence
  • South Carolina Committee of Correspondence

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Taking Up Arms and the Challenge of Slavery in the Revolutionary Era

Days One, Two, and Three (pacing will depend on the teacher/class; teachers may also decide to do only one or two of the documents, due to time constraints).

Working in groups, students will act as members of designated Committees of Correspondence in the five different colonies, communicating their reactions to documents and events at crucial times in this period of transition from protest to armed struggle and revolt. Each group will be expected to annotate the documents and express their views on the reactions of different Committees of Correspondence; they will "correspond" with each other, as the colonists would have done in 1774-1775. The students will interact with the texts, provide their own annotations, and comment on each other's ideas.

Step One: Homework

For homework the night before, students should read The Colonists Move Toward Open Rebellion, 1773-1774, (a background reading about the evolving conflict between the British and Americans) from EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory, and Declarations of Independence, (a background reading about the language of slavery and the quest for personal freedom, 1770-1783 on EDSITEment's Africans in America).

Instructors should also review with students the evolving differences between the Patriot and Tory points of view during the Revolutionary crisis, using their textbook and/or the background reading provided in this lesson.

Step Two: Modeling

The teacher will model the types of responses expected from students by reading the following July 19, 1774 document about the growing agreement among Patriots' responses to the Tea Party, a significant step towards open rebellion, and then annotating it as she or he examines the colonists' views and actions at this juncture: Proceedings of the New York Committee of Correspondence, July 19, 1774

Teacher's Sample Annotation of New York Committee of Correspondence, July 19, 1774 in separate PDF.

Step Three: Group Work

During the next several days, students will work in their respective groups to analyze a series of documents that chronicle the evolution of events that culminate in Lord Dunmore's Proclamation of November, 1775. Links to these documents—as well as the bulleted questions below—are available to students in a convenient Student LaunchPad [Note: Each group would try to read all the documents, in chronological order, to enable them to see the progression of the Americans' reactions to the British actions. If there is not enough time, teachers can decide which ones to use; documents 2, 4, and 7 could work as a unit.]

For each document, each group should annotate the key passages and then answer these questions. Students will then share both their annotations and their answers to the questions with the other Committees):

  • What is (are) the key message(s) in this document?
  • How are Patriots in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • How are Tories in your colony likely to respond to this document?
  • What local circumstances are critical to your response to this document?
  • Does the document use the imagery/rhetoric of slavery? What language does it use to connect the situation of the Americans and slavery?
  • How are free and/or enslaved African-Americans in your colony likely to respond to this document?

Students should use their textbook, the background readings, the sample annotations and questions, and the Student LaunchPad, along with their prior knowledge, to answer these questions.

Teachers should model the responses to the questions available in a in separate PDF to help students with answering the questions about the documents. In this way, teachers would be certain all groups have an understanding of what they are being asked to do. Sample responses in separate PDF.

1. Slave Petition to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts, May 25, 1774. Founder's Library, a link on EDSITEment reviewed Learner.org. A group of enslaved African Americans in Massachusetts petition the executive and legislative branches of the colony to end slavery.

Student LaunchPad One

2. A Fixed Plan to Bring the Most Humiliating Bondage, June 8, 1774 (American Memory). The Boston Committee of Correspondence calls for united action against the Coercive Acts—lest the colonies become slaves. (excerpt in separate PDF)

Student LaunchPad Two

3. Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, October 14, 1774, Avalon Project. The First Continental Congress explains their history of the dispute with England and the horrors of the Intolerable Acts, and then it explains the rights and resolutions of the colonies at that point. This document is good for showing that the violent rupture of the following year was not a foregone conclusion at this stage. (excerpt in separate PDF)

Student LaunchPad Three

4. Patrick Henry: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, March 23, 1775, Avalon Project. Patrick Henry explains why the Americans must fight if they want to avoid being enslaved to England, three weeks or so before Lexington and Concord. (excerpt in separate PDF)

Student LaunchPad Four

5. Accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, 1775 Digital History (Isaac Merrill's 1775 letter about battles at Lexington and Concord) and Soldiers' Depositions, American Memory. These are depositions from soldiers who were present—all or some of them can be used to show the extent of the fighting and the Americans' perceptions of what happened.

Student LaunchPad Five

6. The Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms (July 6, 1775, The Continental Congress responds to the fighting with a statement of their position) Avalon Project (excerpt in separate PDF)

Student LaunchPad Six

7. Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, 1775 The Royal Governor statement on November, 7, 1775, that slaves who fled their owners and came to fight for the British would be freed). Africans in America

Student LaunchPad Seven

Step Four: Group Instruction

Explain that after students annotate each document and answer the questions given in Step Three, they will read other group responses and comment on them. This will enable them to sense what the colonists were experiencing as they communicated their reactions to one another in response to the different events/documents. Students should save their annotations and the answers for each document so that other students can view their work. They should be told ahead of time that each group will be asked to explain how and why their colony's position about "taking up arms" evolved during this time period. As part of their final report, they should address the role of the rhetoric about slavery during the revolutionary crisis.


Two Possible Formats:

1. Students will be asked to write an editorial or broadside from the following three choices: either of two following newspaper editorials: the first should be an editorial in a Boston pro-patriot newspaper; the second, an editorial from a New York Tory newspaper, and the third, a broadside from the free black community. All three should be dated December 1, 1775.

They will be required to address the following key issues in their editorials:

  • What has happened in the past year and a half that has altered the relationship of England and its colonies?
  • Who was chiefly responsible for this development?
  • What were the factors that led the Americans to armed struggle and were they justified in that response?
  • What else could the Americans have done; what alternatives did they have to the course of action they took; and did they explore any of those options?
  • What do they predict will happen because armed struggle has now arisen?
  • How has the metaphor of slavery been used by the colonists in this period?

Finally, students should also write a short broadside from an author in the free black community in Philadelphia. They should address the following key issues:

  • Decide whether to support the British or the American cause
  • Comment on the language of liberty that the white Americans use
  • Predict will happen because armed struggle has now arisen?
  • Analyze the promise of freedom offered by the British

2. Students can convene in a mini "Continental Congress" (of the five Committees of Correspondence) to present their answers to the questions posed about the documents. They can be elected representatives (Patriot or Tory), or free African-Americans. They should discuss regional differences that arise to enable them to see which issues are commonly shared and which more regional. They can then vote on the options available: taking up arms or alternatives that were put forth in the documents.

Extending The Lesson

1. What was King George's reaction to the North American colonies' declaration of armed resistance? Examine his speech to Parliament on October 27, 1775 at EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory:

2. What did other people in England think about the issue? Check out Edmund Burke's view at Founder's Library, a link on EDSITEment-reviewed Learner.org

3. What did many of the Founders think and write about the issue of enslavement? Examine their views at Slavery in America, a link on EDSITEment-reviewed History Matters.


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Richard Miller, Beacon High School (New York, NY)
  • Martin Burke, Lehman College, CUNY (New York, NY)