US Civil War

Materials, setting, and student background required

This lesson is designed for a traditional (non-computer) classroom setting. Teachers may, however, choose to have students use the newspaper search page to search for articles on slavery themselves. Teachers who do so should be prepared for students' coming across derogatory racial terms that may be upsetting or confusing.

Print and copy the following articles and questions in advance (articles follow in this section);

Historical Background

Southerners became more passionately pro-slavery in response to increased northern opposition to the institution. Events in the 1850s, such as northern popular resistance to the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, the rise of the Republican Party, and John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry (about a hundred miles from Augusta County), provoked an even stronger defense.

The articles refer to several historical figures that students should be familiar with. William Lloyd Garrison was the most vocal and extreme of the abolitionists. In his famous newspaper, The Liberator, Garrison demanded immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery, and he denounced the U.S. Constitution for its proslavery provisions. Henry Ward Beecher was a well-known antislavery minister whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. Ohio congressman Joshua Giddings was well-known for his defense of slave uprisings and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law. The articles also refer in passing to the Underground Railroad, the term given to a secret network of transportation and hiding places for runaway slaves fleeing north.

Some of the articles refer to John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry. In October, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He had hoped that slaves throughout the area would flock to Harper's Ferry and join him in a massive uprising. However, Brown and his small band of followers were quickly captured, and Brown was hung. Much to the horror of slaveholders, many antislavery northerners praised Brown and mourned his death.


Brief students on background as needed. Divide students into three groups, and further divide them into teams of two or three students. Hand out articles and questions:

Instruct students to work with their teams to read the article and answer questions on worksheet. If time permits, groups can read all three of the articles.

When students have completed their task, reconvene whole group to share findings.

Questions for whole class discussion:
  • Do you think slaveholders really believed what they said and wrote in defense of slavery?
  • Besides the reason given by the author of Article One, what reason can you think of for the failure of slaves to join John Brown's uprising?
  • Are there institutions and practices that people defend today that may be considered immoral a hundred years from now?
Follow-up, Assessment, and Extensions Write a one act play or a dialogue between an abolitionist and a slaveholder discussing the "peculiar institution." Your play should demonstrate understanding of the themes discussed in class.

Write an essay on the ideology of slaveholding in the South. Draw on secondary sources (such as your textbook) and on the articles read in this class.

This material was developed by Alice Carter for the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.