Thursday, October 30, 2014

Teaching about slavery BEFORE the Missouri Compromise

Scroll to the bottom of this post for some new resources that are available since I wrote this post.

I do not have any specific data on this, but I would bet a lot of money that if you went into middle and high school classrooms and asked students about slavery in the North, you would get a lot of blank stares. I would also bet that many history teachers (based on what I know about most history textbooks) teach very little about slavery until they get to the pre-Civil War period. Maybe a mention or two about the 3/5 compromise or the decision to end the slave trade in 1808. Hopefully a bit more about the beginning of slavery during the colonial period.

But for the most part, when Americans think about slavery, they think about big plantations, cotton, the South and the Civil War.

Middle school level textbooks do an especially poor job on this.  High school level books probably are a bit better, but I don't have any handy to check.

Consider the few mentions in my daughter's 7th grade U.S. history textbook (Pearson's Prentice Hall America: History of Our Nation):
During the Revolution, a number of northern states took steps to end slavery.  For example, a Pennsylvania law of 1780 provided for a gradual end to slavery.  It allowed slaveholders to keep their existing slaves but barred them from getting more. (p. 187)
There is another sentence about the North on page 395:
 Slavery had largely ended in the North by the early 1800s.
And 27 pages later, a brief section with a bolded beginning:
Slavery Ends in the North In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state to pass a law that gradually eliminated slavery.  By 1804, every northern state had ended or pledged to end slavery.  Congress also outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory.  As a result, when Ohio entered the Union in 1803, it became the first state to ban slavery in its state constitution.
And on page 400, there are 4 sentences on the Nat Turner rebellion that simply state what happened, without any explanation of the significance.

Slavery is one of The Issues of the first half of U.S. history, and I believe we must teach it more comprehensively, throughout our units on Colonial America, the Constitution, the New Nation and the period leading up to the Civil War (not to mention the after effects during Reconstruction through the present, but that gets us into next semester). Students need to understand that big cotton plantations did not magically appear in the South. Historian Ira Berlin explains, "viewing Southern slavery from the point of maturity...[has] produced an essentially static vision of slave culture." (From "Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America," American Historical Review, 85, Feb. 1980.)  Students walk away with a myopic look at slavery if we only teach about it right before the Civil War.

So, what should students learn about slavery before you get to the Missouri Compromise? An incomplete list follows. I was trying to make this more complete, then remembered this is a blog, not a book. If I put everything here, I'd never finish this post!
  • When we teach about the Constitution, we need students to read the excerpts on the 3/5 compromise and the end of the slave trade. But more importantly, we need them to understand how this almost derailed the Constitutional Convention. See here for a brief history. See about midway through the page for more info here. And a few other links: click here or here. Students should understand that from the beginning, the United States was struggling over slavery.

And now, moving on to the post-revolutionary era:

  • Students should be reminded that slavery did exist in the North. Use maps to illustrate this: (I couldn't get this to open, but hopefully you can.) But also check out this really cool map and this one that I found on what looks to be a really interesting Civil War blog--called Civil War Memory by Kevin M. Levin that I will have to check out later. (Now you know why it takes me forever to get these blog posts done...I find all kinds of other fun stuff and before I know it hours go by....) He does a nice job of explaining what he does with students to help them understand slavery as a national, not just southern, phenomenon.

  • Cotton, of course, did become king. So teach students about how that happened.  As my dear friend and former colleague would say, Tell them a story! Click here for background info about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. It's a good story.

Want to use Common Core standards?

  • Using the standards below, have students read a brief account of the significance of the cotton gin, either in their textbook, something you write up, or use this account (scroll down to "Effects") from the National Archives website.  (Note: you can also find links to teaching activities and documents about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin.)

Then, to implement the above standard, students can examine maps like these interactive ones from the University of Oregon which shows the spread of slavery from 1790-1860. There are 3 of them that show the growth of cotton, slavery and then combining them. Plus there's a graph displaying the economics of cotton.

  • Nat Turner!! I am currently reading Stephen B. Oates's book, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. The final chapter (I read ahead) is about the legacy of Turner's Rebellion and it is excellent. I am reading the book because I read a fantastic lesson plan by Bruce Lesh in his book, Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answers about Nat Turner. It appears that you can see this lesson online but buy his book! There are lots of other great lesson ideas in it! I think it is important to teach Nat Turner and the debates over slavery in Virginia that followed because of this paragraph I once read by the historian Gerda Lerner.

Some other interesting resources:

  • Check out the fourth paragraph of George Washington's will (link to the will on this webpage) in which he requests that all his slaves be freed following his death and that of his wife. Lots more information about Washington and slavery at the Mount Vernon website: click here. Also check out this PBS lesson plan about Washington and slavery. 2015 update about this link: I can't seem to find this anymore. Sorry!
  • Some intriguing information can be found about Robert Carter III, who gradually freed over 500 slaves, the largest manumission of slaves by a single person before the Civil War. Check it out at the website You can get a brief bio of Carterprimary sources and a list of all the enslaved people that were freed by name. (Interesting note--I just fixed this link on August 18. The reason it wasn't working is because the old link was: and the last word, "slaves" has been changed to "enslaved." Thinking about the words we use (slaves vs. enslaved) matters and can be a thoughtful exercise with students. For more on this, see a recent blogpost I did for Middleweb.)

  • One of my favorite podcasts, BackStory with the American History Guys did an episode on the War of 1812 (worth checking out in its entirety). In one segment, historian Peter Onuf discusses a little known verse of our national anthem that touches on fears about slavery developing at this time. You can hear that segment here or read the brief transcript (scroll to the segment, "Facetime").

  • There are a whole bunch of resources available from PBS in connection with their broadcast, Slavery and the Making of America. There are links to primary sources and other readings, lesson plans for middle and high school levels, and virtual exhibits created by students.  Unfortunately, the link for Lesson 5 (Slavery by the Numbers) to the required census data seems to be broken, but I think I found it here.

  • When you get to the Missouri Compromise, don't forget to use one of my favorite quotations from Thomas Jefferson. It explains volumes about the predicament of the South and the nation regarding slavery. His image of grabbing a wolf by the ear will help middle schoolers wrestle with the complexity of the situation. Check out this lesson plan from PBS on the topic.

  • Slavery is intimately connected to America's continual struggle with race. For ideas about connecting contemporary racial issues to slavery, look into the The Race Card Project by Michelle Norris (from National Public Radio).  National Public Radio has turned some of these into longer stories. The most recent one delves into slavery as the fundamental cause of the Civil War. Find it here.

And while I'm on the touchy subject of race (and to finally finish this post before I head out to see a documentary about race showing at the local high school!), I thought I might conclude with a discomfiting observation from a former student of mine who was one of many African-American students in the class. She approached me after class one day and asked me why we had to spend so much time on slavery. It depressed her, and she was tired of hearing about it. I do not recall how I answered, but I will never forget her or her question. I'm not sure there is any satisfactory answer that I could have given as a (does it matter that I am white?) teacher.

But her question reminds me that history's reach is very long; that the ripple effect of slavery still has the power to make a student in my class uncomfortable nearly two hundred years later. Of course we can't ignore what is depressing. Sadly, so much of history is. But it is critical that we remember who we are teaching. We are not just our ethnic/racial identities. But our ethnic and racial identities do inform our perceptions. And when we teach about tragic things--slavery, war, oppression & discrimination, U.S. treatment of minorities, etc.--it behooves us to consider the perspectives of those we teach.
Update on August 18, 2019 - the best new resource since I published this post is Teaching Tolerance's, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. There are outstanding resources and podcasts to help you along.
Also, (what made me update this post) is the publication of a New York Times special series in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship to Virginia in 1619. Called the 1619 project, you can read about it here.
And two other readings, good for teacher background: Ta-Nehisi Coates's seminal essay about reparations and the chapter 1 on "Race" in American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis.


  1. Thank you so much for your excellent resources and blog!! Awesome

  2. Thank you so much for the feedback! This was a tough post to write, so I really appreciate it.