Arguing Against Slavery

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Arguing Against Slavery

The central historical question for this lesson on anti-slavery thought is: What arguments did abolitionists make against slavery?

The lesson is best taught over a series of class sessions, though it can be expanded or shortened as necessary. The key variable will be the amount of time spent on reading and analyzing documents. Teachers may choose to offer students modified versions of the documents, linked below under “Other Materials.”

Essential Questions

How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?


In this lesson, students will:

  • Analyze primary documents, applying the historical thinking skills of close reading, sourcing, and contextualization

  • Develop understanding of the historical concepts of continuity and change and taking historical perspectives

  • Answer a historical question in writing and/or in discussion using evidence from primary documents to support their arguments

Suggested Instructional Procedures

Note that in both lessons in this unit, students will follow the same procedure. Repetition of these steps will help students develop their historical thinking skills and learn historical concepts.  It will also facilitate student familiarity with the use of primary sources.

Lesson Step 1: Building Background Knowledge

To prepare students to answer the historical question you will pose to them, build the background understanding they will need. To get the most out of this lesson, students will benefit from having previously studied colonial American history, the American Revolution, and the era of Manifest Destiny.

One way to help students work productively with documents is to provide them with a timeline such as the one linked under Other Materials, to be used while reading and discussing documents. This timeline should serve as a reminder of the chronology of events, rather than a first-time introduction to the events listed.

Another way to help students synthesize understanding from previous study is to review major events with a slideshow or film.

Lesson Step 2: Posing a Historical Question

The heart of this lesson is its historical question: What arguments did abolitionists make against slavery? Pose this question to students and explain that they are going to read primary sources in order to better understand the ways in which abolitionists challenged the institution of slavery. Teachers can also ask students to attempt to answer the question before they read the documents, as a kind of pre-test or initial assessment.

Lesson Step 3: Analyzing Primary Sources

There are many ways to approach the reading of primary sources with students. The Stanford History Education Group, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives all provide excellent resources for teaching students to read historical documents.

While reading the sources, students may benefit from guided questions such as the following (from the Stanford History Education Group) to help them with sourcing, contextualization, and close reading.


  • Who wrote this?

  • What is the author’s perspective?

  • When was it written?

  • Where was it written?

  • Why was it written?


  • When and where was the document created?

  • What was different then? What was the same?

  • How might the circumstances in which the document was created affect its content?

Close Reading

  • What claims does the author make?

  • What evidence does the author use?

  • What language (words, phrases, images, symbols) does the author use to persuade the document’s audience?

  • How does the document’s language indicate the author’s perspective?

  • What information does the author leave out?

Lesson Step 4: Answering the Question

To complete this lesson, students must answer the central historical question by making a historical claim and supporting that claim with evidence from the documents. Teachers can ask students to do this in discussion or in writing (or both).

In general, readers of the documents used in this lesson will find that they provide the following answers to the central historical question:

  • Germantown Friends’ Protest Against Slavery, 1688

    • Slavery is un-Christian because it violates the “Golden Rule.”

  • Fragment of an Original Letter on the Slavery of the Negroes, 1776

    • Slavery is hypocritical in America, given the principles of the American Revolution.

  • Slavery -- The Evil -- The Remedy, 1843

    • Slavery is bad for society because it prevents individual and societal growth.

A discussion of these various arguments against slavery should lead students to consider how each one might have been received and how each one differed depending on its author, intended audience, and context. For example, students might discuss the religious appeal to a Christian principle made by a Quaker society in 1688 and contrast that with the appeal to a newly emerging American ideal of liberty made by a British writer in 1776 calling slavery in America hypocritical. They might then analyze the 1843 argument that slavery damages society by inhibiting moral growth and population growth, considering concerns over growth in the age of Manifest Destiny. Students will be interested to note that these anti-slavery documents do not always argue against slavery on the basis of racial equality as we would construe it today -- indeed, the 1843 essay describes enslaved people as a “degraded race,” even as its author acknowledges that his negative characterization of African American slaves is caused by slavery itself.

In addition to noting differences between the documents, students might also trace the development of themes over two or three of the sources, including appeals to Christian principles and appeals to American ideals of liberty.