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Slavery and the Constitution

105 min

Guiding Questions

  • To what extent was the presence of slavery in America a direct contradiction to the universal ideals of liberty and equality in the American Founding and the Declaration of Independence?


  • Examine the founding documents and other primary sources to analyze whether the presence of slavery in America was in conflict with the founding principles.

  • James Madison
  • equality
  • Founders
  • popular sovereignty
  • property
  • liberty
  • Justice
  • republic
  • John Adams
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Framers
  • Constitution
  • Thirteenth Amendment
  • natural rights
  • republican government

Have students read the Slavery and the Constitution Essay prior to class time.

Post on screen or white board – “In your opinion was the Constitution a pro-slavery document (prior to the passage of the 13th Amendment)?”  Students will need to get up and vote with their feet as you designate a location for “Yes” and “No”.  Ask several on each side to explain/defend their position.

Activity 1: Analyze Constitutional Provisions [30 minutes]

Divide the class into 4 small groups. Distribute Handout A: The United States Constitution and Handout B: Slavery and the Constitution. Provide guided practice in analyzing constitutional provisions by walking the whole class through constitutional provisions 1, 2, and 3 and have students fill in Handout B for those parts. Assign one of the remaining constitutional provisions to each of the 4 groups and have them fill in Handout B for their section. Have each group report their analysis and then revisit their response to the warm-up: conduct a whole-class discussion of the question at the bottom of Handout B: Was the Constitution prior to the Thirteenth Amendment a pro-slavery document?

Activity 2: Document Analysis [20 minutes]

Provide students with Handouts C, D, E, F, G, H, and I.

Use Handout D to introduce (or review) the background of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). Students will work in their groups to fill in Handout C for a particular document.

After groups have analyzed their assigned documents, have each group report how they filled in Handout C.

Activity 3: Whole Class Discussion [15 minutes]

After all groups have reported, conduct a whole-class discussion of the following questions, and have students cite evidence for their responses to these questions:

  • Did Scott have standing to sue?
  • Were blacks entitled to rights as citizens?
  • Could Congress restrict the rights of states to decide if they would be slave or free?
  • Did the Supreme Court correctly decide Dred Scott v. Sanford?

Provide Handout J: Emancipation Proclamation to students.

With students continuing to work in their small groups, allow time for students to read and discuss the Emancipation Proclamation, annotating if they wish to summarize the main point of each paragraph. While students work, write the following passage on the board:

“And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

In whole-class discussion, talk through the Critical Thinking Questions. Then ask students to consider the excerpt you wrote on the board. In a large-group discussion, ask students: to what degree was  the Proclamation:

  1. An act of justice? Justice for whom?
  2. Warranted by the Constitution?
  3. A military necessity?

  • Slavery cannot simply be dismissed as a “sign of the times” or as a “necessary evil”. As Enlightenment philosophers put forth ideas like Natural Rights, the very idea of slavery comes under scrutiny and attack.  Why did it take so long and why was it so difficult to end slavery in America? In what ways is the United States still paying the price for slavery?
  • Jim Crow & the Nazis: Using the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website, compare and contrast the Nuremberg Laws crafted by the Nazis to separate and isolate the Jews to the Jim Crow Laws and Black Codes of the American South.

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

Civil War and Reconstruction