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The Great Debate Lesson Plan: Slavery in the U.S. Constitution
Overview
This lesson should be used in conjunction with The Transatlantic Slave Trade, in particular, the segment on "Suppression of the Slave Trade." Students will examine five sections of the U.S. Constitution to see what the Federal Government has said about slavery, past and present. Then, class members will research individuals and interest groups whose participation in the political process led to the slavery compromises during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Later in the school year, they will revisit the issue, looking at different individuals and interest groups who pressured Congress as the 'Civil War Amendments' were drafted and adopted in the final phase of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction.
Grade Levels:Middle school, grades 6-8
For use with:The Transatlantic Slave Trade
Concentration Area:History
Concentration Area:U.S. Government
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • Issues and ideas supported and opposed by delegates at the Constitutional Convention (e.g. enduring features of the Constitution, such as the separation of powers' check and balances; the Virginia Plan; the New Jersey Plan; the Connecticut Compromise; abolition).
  • Lives of African Americans during the Reconstruction era (e.g. the progress of "Black Reconstruction" and the impact of legislative reform programs; contributions of individual African Americans who served as teachers and political leaders; the reasons some abolition leaders voiced opposition to the 15th Amendment).
Time required
Four 50-minute class periods (the first two periods during the class study of the Constitutional Convention, the second two periods during its study of the Civil War ) or more depending on the amount of outside reading or media center research assigned.
Materials needed
Anticipatory Set

  1. Ask students to read the following five segments of the U.S. Constitution to see what the Federal Government has said about slavery in the past and what is applicable to slavery today:

    1. I.9.1 (1808 slave trade);
    2. I.2.3. (3/5 clause);
    3. 13th Amendment;
    4. 14th Amendment;
    5. 15th Amendment.
    Then, discuss, with students, the meaning of each of these five sections. Ask students which section of the U.S. Constitution is changed by the second clause of the 14th Amendment and why.
  2. Ask students why they think the Constitution, written in 1787, did not abolish the slave trade until 1808 and adopted a formula of counting slaves as 3/5 persons towards the apportionment of representatives and direct taxes.
  3. Direct students to read the narrative The Transatlantic Slave Trade, focusing on the section "Suppression of the Slave Trade," as well as the Congressional U.S. Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the subsequent Act of 1820. Ask them: To what influences do they attribute the legislation to suppress the slave trade?
Procedures

  1. For the Constitutional Convention – The Debate over the Slave Trade and 3/5 Clause

    1. During the class study of the Constitutional Period, ask each student to assume the role of a member of an interest group or an historic figure who was involved in the debate over the Constitution and its ratification. Students will need to learn what the position of their group or individual was regarding the following issues:

      1. Counting slaves towards apportionment of representatives in Congress;
      2. Counting slaves for tax purposes;
      3. Continuation of the importation of slaves into the United States;
      4. Continuation of the slave trade within the United States;
      5. Continuation of slavery within the United States.
    2. Either assign or have students sign up for one of the following roles:

      1. Northern merchant
      2. Southern planter
      3. Western small farmer (like Daniel Shay)
      4. Slave owner
      5. Abolitionist
      6. Free person of color
      7. Luther Martin (delegate, Maryland)
      8. John Rutledge (delegate, South Carolina)
      9. Oliver Ellsworth (delegate, Connecticut)
      10. Charles Pinckney (delegate, South Carolina)
      11. Abraham Baldwin (delegate, Georgia)
      12. James Wilson (delegate, Pennsylvania)
      13. Gouverneur Morris (delegate, Pennsylvania)
      14. Benjamin Franklin (delegate, Pennsylvania)
      15. James Madison (delegate, Virginia)
      16. Roger Sherman (delegate, Connecticut)
      17. Alexander Hamilton (delegate, New York)
      18. William Paterson (delegate, New Jersey)
      19. George Mason (delegate, Virginia)
      20. Edmund Randolph (delegate, Virginia)
      21. George Washington (convention president, Virginia)
      22. John Jay (Federalist, New York)
      23. John Adams (Federalist, Massachusetts)
      24. Patrick Henry (anti-Federalist, Virginia)
      25. John Hancock (Federalist, Massachusetts)
      26. Thomas Jefferson (diplomat to France)
    3. Set a date for the "Debate on Slavery in the Constitution," one to two weeks in advance of the actual debates so students have a deadline but time to conduct research. Because the above individuals and groups are well documented, students should be able to locate information about their attitudes towards slavery, and specifically, slavery and constitutional questions, by examining biographies as well as histories of the Constitutional Convention and the fight for ratification.
    4. Set up a seating chart for the day with the roles indicated, so that the moderator (i.e. George Washington) will be able to call on students by their role name. Delegates should sit together by state, while members from interest groups may sit in an area designated "for the public." "George Washington" should sit in front of the group to act as moderator; be sure to give the person playing this role the opportunity to have the final say of the day, since he or she will be busy managing the floor during the debate. Ask students to create placards large enough so other students know whom they are role-playing. All speakers must ask the moderator for permission to address the class, either to present their ideas or to respond to the ideas presented by other figures. Any speaker who becomes rude or abusive will be ejected from the debate.
    5. If you need someone to be an "ice-breaker," James Wilson of Pennsylvania may ask to speak and point out that southern states wanted to count slaves as part of their population for determining apportionment in the House of Representatives yet not to count slaves as part of the population for tax purposes, and that he objected to them having it both ways. Alternatively, Luther Martin of Maryland may lead off on the issue of the slave trade by condemning it and saying it was "inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the Constitution."
  2. For the Civil War-Reconstruction Amendments—The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments

    1. 6. During the class study of the Civil War and Reconstruction, ask students to assume the roles of a member of an interest group or an historic figure who was involved in the debate over the drafting of the Civil War Amendments by Congress and their ratification by the states. Students will need to learn the position of the group or individual regarding the following issues:

      1. Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery;
      2. Citizenship for emancipated slaves;
      3. Universal manhood suffrage;
      4. Women's suffrage; and
      5. Compensation to slave owners for emancipation of slaves.
    2. 7. Either assign or have students sign up for one of the following roles:

      1. Northern industrialist
      2. Southern planter
      3. Western homesteader
      4. Former slave owner
      5. Freedman
      6. "War Democrats" such as John Ganson, Representative of New York or
      7. James English, Representative of Connecticut
      8. "Peace Democrats" or "Copperheads" such as Fernando Wood of New York
      9. or C. L. Vallandigham of Ohio
      10. Andrew Johnson, President
      11. Susan B. Anthony, women's suffragist
      12. Lucy Stone, women's suffragist
      13. Frederick Douglass, abolitionist
      14. Wendell Phillips, abolitionist
      15. Parker Pillsbury, abolitionist
      16. William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist
      17. Horace Greeley, editor
      18. Charles Francis Adams, diplomat to Great Britain
      19. Hiram Revels, state senator of Mississippi
      20. Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the United States
      21. Thaddeus Stevens, Representative of Pennsylvania
      22. James S. Rollins, Representative of Missouri
      23. Charles Sumner, Senator of Massachusetts
      24. William Fessenden, Senator of Maine
      25. Lyman Trumbull, Senator of Illinois
      26. Thomas Hendricks, Senator of Indiana
      27. Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House
      28. Benjamin Wade, Acting President of the Senate
    3. 8. Set a date for the "Debate on Amending the Constitution" one to two weeks before the actual debates so students have a deadline but time to conduct research. Because the above individuals and groups are well documented, students should be able to locate information about their attitudes towards slavery, and specifically, slavery and constitutional questions, by examining biographies as well as histories of the era of Reconstruction and state fights for ratification of these amendments.
    4. 9. Set up a seating chart for the day with the roles indicated, so that the moderator, i.e. Benjamin Wade, will be able to call on students by their role name. Members of Congress should sit together by state, while members from interest groups may sit in an area designated "for the public." "Benjamin Wade" should sit in front of the group to act as moderator; be sure to give the person playing this role the opportunity to have the final say of the day, since he or she will be busy managing the floor during the debate. Ask students to create placards large enough so other students know whom they are role-playing. All speakers must ask the moderator for permission to address the class, either to present their ideas or to respond to the ideas presented by other figures. Any speaker who becomes rude or abusive will be ejected from the debate.
    5. 10. If the teacher needs someone to be an "ice-breaker," Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania may ask to speak and declare, "I am for Negro suffrage in every rebel State. If it be just, it should not be denied; if it be necessary, it should be adopted; if it be a punishment to traitors, they deserve it."
    6. 11. After they have completed both debates, ask students to discuss the changes in thought and political alliances from 1787 to 1870, whether regional factions persisted, and to assess the impact of economics and labor on the questions of abolition and enfranchisement.
Assessment

Evaluate the debates using the following rubric:

Grading Element Excellent (4) Good (3) Fair (2) Not Satisfactory (1) No Work (0)
Oral Skills Effective

Speaker: tonal;

variety; speed;

volume; clarity
Minor

Problems:

Monotone;

Soft; mumbling;

too rapid

  • Numerous speaking problems; or
  • Minimal participation
  • Communication Lacking,
  • Wanders off topic
  • Does not participate
    Historical Research

  • Locates and uses specific historical arguments and examples
  • No factual errors
  • Locates and uses general historical arguments and a few examples
  • No factual errors
  • Locates and uses general information
  • Some factual errors
  • Little research
  • Limited understanding of arguments
  • Many factual errors
  • No research
    Role Playing

  • Authenticity, enthusiasm and knowledge of information is deep
  • Little need to refer to notes
  • Above average enthusiasm or authenticity
  • Good knowledge but reliance on notes
  • Reads scripted notes
  • Minimal effort at establishing empathy with historical figures
  • Little or no effort to establish empathy with historical figure
  • Presents information without role playing
  • Does not participate
    Group Skills

  • Natural participation in ebb and flow of debate; improvises well.
  • Contributes to the debate but does not monopolize it.
  • Displays courtesy.
  • Participates effectively but doesn't improvise well in debate situation. Monopolizes debate or does not contribute. Rude to other members of the class Inappropriate comments

    Related Works

    • Max Farrand's Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, is the definitive edition containing the records of the Constitutional Convention and its debates. The Clinton Rossiter edition of The Federalist provides Hamilton, Jay, and Madison's own explanation of the Constitution. Gordon Wood, in The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 and J. T. Main, in Political Parties before the Constitution, analyze the impact on government of popular influences, voting blocs, and factionalism.
    • The Civil War Amendments are explored by:

      • J. M. McPherson in The Struggle for Equality;
      • Louis Gerteis in From Contraband to Freedman, Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks;
      • J. P. Voegeli in Free But Not Equal;
      • M. Vorenberg in Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the 13th Amendment;
      • J.B. James in The Framing of the 14th Amendment;
      • Jacobus ten Broek in The Antislavery Origins of the 14th Amendment; and
      • W. R. Gillette, The Right to Vote.
    Interdisciplinary Links

    • Media Production: Collaborate with the media production team and teacher-sponsor to make a video or DVD of the debates. To achieve good production values, students may need to work on staging, lighting, and sound, as well as content.
    • Drama: The debates may be recast in a dramatic format, with elements such as monologues or asides, flash-backs, and costuming. The genre of the musical has explored historical documents as well; 1776 examines the Declaration of Independence and letters of John and Abigail Adams, while Ragtime looks at the writings of Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman.
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