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Slavery and the Constitution

  • 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

Slavery and the Constitution Activity: Was the Constitution Pro Slavery?

Post the following question on the board: “Was the Constitution (prior to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery) a pro-slavery document?” Ask the question aloud, as well. Then, do a “stand-on-the-line” response:

Remind students to listen to full instructions before choosing where they will stand.

Indicate one side of the classroom as representing “Yes” and the opposite side as representing “No”. Read the question again, and invite students to go to stand on the side of the room corresponding to their response (If students want to stand somewhere in the middle, allow them to do so as long as they can offer an explanation for their stance.)

Thank the students and tell them that they will have the opportunity to respond to this question again after having examined the Constitution in more detail.

Distribute copies of Handout A: The United States Constitution and Handout B: Slavery and the Constitution. Divide students into pairs and assign an equal number of pairs to analyze the constitutional citations. Allow several minutes for students to discuss in their pairs, then conduct a large-group discussion to fill in the chart. Post or project responses onto the board.

Explain to students that individuals throughout history, including the Founders themselves, have debated whether the Constitution protected slavery, or, on the contrary, doomed the institution of slavery. Initiate a discussion among students: Did the Constitution protect, or did it doom, the institution of slavery? Insist that responses are based on the text of the U.S. Constitution.

Check student understanding by assigning an “exit slip” on which they write a three-point thesis statement, as if writing an essay or response paper, addressing this question. The three points must come directly from the Constitution citations referenced in the chart in Handout B.


Slavery and the Constitution Activity: Dred Scott: Same Documents, Different Conclusions

Have students read Handout C: Dred Scott (1857) Case Background. Then, have them brainstorm relevant background knowledge. They may suggest the following: details about Dred Scott’s life story; constitutional references such as the Three-Fifths Compromise, Fugitive Slave Clause, Due Process Clause, etc.

Introduce the central question: “Analyze how the two sides in the Dred Scott decision interpreted the same Founding documents and came to such different conclusions.” To support students as they begin their analysis, ask:

  • What are the two sides?
  • What did each side want?
  • How did each side interpret critical phrases differently?

Depending on your students’ familiarity with the process of answering DBQs and writing essays, you may wish to provide them with the following template for their thesis statements:

“The two sides in the Dred Scott v. Sanford controversy came to such different conclusions in interpreting the same Founding documents because, while the side supporting Dred Scott emphasized…, the side representing Sanford emphasized…”

Guide students in a walk-through of the handouts without actually reading them at this time. Just skim them and considering how each may or may not prove to be related to the constitutional issues at stake in the Dred Scott decision.

Distribute Handout A: The United States Constitution. Draw attention to the Preamble. Ask:

  • Based on your readings of The Declaration of Independence and the Draft Declaration of Independence, and then looking at the Preamble to the Constitution, who are “We the people?”
  • Who are the “such persons” referenced in Article I, Section 9?
  • In Article IV, Section 2, Clause 1, what are “privileges and immunities”?
  • Restate Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 in your own words. What does it mean?
  • According to the Constitution, what level of government has the power to regulate slavery?

Distribute Handout C: Document Summary Table. Students should also still have Handout A as a reference as well as Handout D: Dred Scott v. Sanford (1854) Case Background. Divide the class into four groups and assign each group the task of analyzing Handouts E – I.

  • Group 1: Handouts E and F
  • Group 2: Handout G
  • Group 3: Handout H
  • Group 4: Handout I

Have Group 1 report the results of its analysis, allowing other students in the class to complete their Documents Summary tables. Continue with Groups 2, 3, and 4.

Take a vote: How do your students think the Supreme Court should have decided the Dred Scott case? (See end of Handout D: Dred Scott Case Background.)

  • 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?

In an essay, students write a well-organized response to target a specific prompt, analyzing pertinent documents in order to support his/her thesis.


Slavery and the Constitution Activity: Reading the Emancipation Proclamation

Have students brainstorm what they already know about the Emancipation Proclamation and the events leading up to it.

Distribute Handout J: The Emancipation Proclamation. Assign students to groups of three or four and give them time to read the Proclamation and discuss their answers to the related questions.

After students have had time to read and discuss, post the following line from the Emancipation Proclamation 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 a large-group discussion, ask students: to what degree the Proclamation was:

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

Point out the “Assessments of the Proclamation” on Handout J. Guide students in a discussion about the points of view reflected in each of the statements.

Next Lesson

Civil War and Reconstruction