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Changing Views of Slavery Mini-DBQ

  • Students will be able to identify how attitudes toward African slavery in the United States have changed from the Founding Era to the mid-nineteenth century by a comparison reading of Thomas Jefferson’s Query XVIII fromNotes on the State of Virginia(1781), Jefferson’s letter to Bishop Henri Gregoire (1809), David Walker’sAn Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World(1829), Sarah Moore Grimke’s “An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States” (1836), and William Harper’s essay “Slavery in Light of Social Ethics” (1837).
  • Students will analyze primary source documents by answering comprehension questions to guide them to conclusions about the arguments being presented within them.
  • Students will practice writing a thesis statement for a CCOT essay.

Handout A: Student Documents

  • Document 1: The Declaration of Independence (1776)
  • Document 2: Thomas Jefferson’s Query XVIII from Notes on the State of Virginia (1781)
  • Document 3: Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Bishop Henri Grégoire (1809)
  • Document 4: David Walker’s An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829)
  • Document 5: Sarah Moore Grimké’s “An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States” (1836)
  • Document 6: William Harper’s essay “Slavery in Light of Social Ethics” (1837)

This lesson should follow exploration of the expansion of slavery due to the invention of the cotton gin. This lesson seeks to put into context the fundamental shift in thinking about slavery that occurred in the minds of observers of slavery as a result of its mass expansion during the early to mid-nineteenth century. Students should have the sensitivity and respect required to talk about the topic of slavery.

Students will read the excerpt from the opening of theDeclaration of Independenceand answer the accompanying questions. After discussing the first three questions, read the following paragraph out loud with students for emphasis (on student handout):

The Declaration of Independence was an assertion of universal natural rights for all human beings, including the idea that they are created equal and have the right to govern themselves by their own consent. At the time of the Founding, African Americans who were held as slaves were denied the inalienable rights they had according to natural law. They were viewed as property and therefore had no opportunity to enjoy those natural rights listed in the Declaration. Many Founders, even those who held slaves, shared in their public and private writings and speeches that they were troubled by slavery and saw the institution as a moral abomination and unjust because it violated the principles of liberty, equality, and consent. Even those who defended slavery argued on the grounds of economic necessity, historical precedent, and self-interest, as many recognized the hypocrisy and inconsistency of slavery with the principles they asserted. Those attitudes changed in mid-nineteenth century when some slaveholders articulated a different defense of slavery.

In the following documents, you will see evidence of changing attitudes toward slavery from c. 1780 to 1840.

The documents students will examine in this activity shed light on how attitudes toward slavery changed over time. Note that the documents are all from the perspective of outsiders who never personally experienced slavery.

Have students read and answer questions for the remaining primary source documents. Students may complete this individually or in pairs as best fits your classroom. In this stage, the teacher should move about the classroom to confirm students are analyzing the documents correctly. This observation and questioning will serve as formative assessments for the lesson.

After students have worked through the documents, invite students to come back together to synthesize the content by leading a class discussion on the following questions. Students may respond orally to each question or write their responses to each question, as best fits your classroom.

  1. What attitudes toward slavery are evident in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and his letter to Bishop Henri Grégoire?
  2. What attitudes toward slavery are evident in Grimké’s “An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States”? How do they compare with Jefferson in the previous document? What is significant or different about Grimké as a source compared with Jefferson?
  3. What attitudes toward slavery are evident in Walker’s An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World? How does this source compare with the previous two? What is significant or different about Walker as a source compared with Jefferson and Grimké?
  4. What attitudes toward slavery are evident in Harper’s “Slavery in Light of Social Ethics”?

Have each student write a thesis statement to the prompt: Explain how attitudes toward African slavery changed from the Founding Era (c. 1780) to the mid-nineteenth century (c. 1840). You may solicit volunteers to share their thesis and workshop several using the following questions, or have students share with a partner and provide feedback on the following questions:

  • Does the thesis answer the question without restating the prompt?
  • Does the thesis make sense?
  • Is the thesis historically accurate?
  • Does the thesis provide clear and cohesive reasoning?
  • Does the thesis provide a road map or “table of contents” for an essay?

Thesis statements can be collected and assessed using the criteria from the College Board for a successful thesis statement, or with an individual class rubric.