Ending Slavery

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Ending Slavery

The central historical question for this lesson on anti-slavery thought is: How did abolitionists propose to end 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 the abolition movement, including plans for colonization, gradualist versus immediatist theories of abolition, the work of Frederick Douglass, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

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: How did abolitionists propose to end 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 planned to end 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:

  • Memorial of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery to the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States, 1790

    • The government of the United States should act -- in an unspecified way, and by stepping to the “very verge” (or “very edge,” in the modified document) of its powers -- to end slavery, because the institution is inconsistent with American ideals.

  • A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States, without Danger or Loss to the Citizens of the South, 1825

    • Slavery is terrible, but there can be no emancipation plan without compensation to slave owners for their property.

    • The government should set up experimental cooperative farms as a way to gradually emancipate enslaved people.

    • Slaves would work on these farms towards self-purchase over the course of a few years, the profit from their cooperative farming going towards the cost of buying the slaves from their owners.

    • These farms would solve the perceived problem of educating enslaved people about the virtue of hard work, thus preparing them for freedom.

    • Removing slaves from plantations would open the door for poor white laborers, who would take their place.

  • Declaration of Sentiment of the American Anti-Slavery Society, 1833

    • Slavery is brutal, and slaveholders are “man-stealers.”

    • There should be immediate and uncompensated emancipation.

    • Congress should suppress the slave trade between the states and abolish slavery in the territories.

    • Abolitionist societies will work to this end by encouraging the formation of similar societies, making speeches, publishing anti-slavery writing in the press, “purifying” the church, and boycotting slave-made goods.

  • Speech on John Brown, 1860

    • All means of combatting slavery are good, including contradictory strategies: “peace, war, Bible, Constitution, disunion, Union.”

    • Many different strategies for ending slavery have been attempted, with very little success.

    • Slaves themselves should act to make their owners afraid.

    • Men hiding in the mountains should conduct raids to free slaves, terrifying slaveholders.

    • The dissolution of the Union would be a positive step, because a leader (a “Garibaldi,” in the original document) would arise who would march into the South to end slavery.

A discussion of these documents might lead students to respond to the question by commenting that the answer seems to have changed over time. This is exactly what we want students to understand. In other words, plans to end slavery and plans for freed people changed depending on the context. In the 1790 petition, the absence of a specific plan, yet the evocation of American ideals of liberty and equality, is striking. In the 1825 pamphlet, by contrast, the proposal is quite detailed. Though the gradualist self-purchase scheme will strike students (as it struck many contemporaries) as far-fetched, its particulars reveal the worries of the white American public with regards to emancipation. How could slaves be freed without compensating owners for their loss? (Note the contrast between the 1790 petition’s description of enslaved people as “fellow Creatures” and the 1825 pamphlet’s characterization of slaves as mere property.) Where would the freed slaves go? And how would they learn what to do once freed?

The 1833 Declaration of Sentiments is in direct response to the received answers to those questions, including the idea of colonization. The American Anti-Slavery Society exemplified the new, immediatist abolitionists, who made uncompensated emancipation a moral issue -- but returned to a somewhat vague set of proposals for actually effecting emancipation. They advocated for use of the press and the pulpit to spread their message, which was one of “moral suasion.” They aimed to cause the nation to repent for its sin of slavery.

This moral suasion was not enough for Frederick Douglass by 1860. An appeal to morals was well and good, he argued, but it could not be the only strategy abolitionists employed, since it plainly wasn’t working. With an eye towards the coming presidential election and the threat of disunion looming, Douglass advocated for an appeal to the fears of slaveholders, using the “John Brown way” if necessary. Notably, this is the only document in this collection that mentions actions to be taken by enslaved people themselves under their own initiative.

Finally, an intriguing aspect of this subject is the larger question of how to best effect social change in society. This lesson could work well in conjunction with a study of other social movements, historical or contemporary.