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Arguing Against Slavery; Ending Slavery

What arguments did abolitionists make against slavery? How did abolitionists propose to end slavery? These historical questions are at the center of this two-lesson unit focused on seven primary documents. In engaging with these questions and these documents, your students will consider the impacts and the limits of abolition, a social movement that spanned hundreds of years.

The documents in these lessons span from 1688 to 1860. To fully benefit from these lessons, students should be familiar with the basic history of slavery in the United States. Some understanding of colonial American history, the American Revolution, the era of Manifest Destiny, and the abolition movement will also be useful. In an American history course taught chronologically, these lessons would therefore fit best shortly before or shortly after covering the Civil War. In a history course taught thematically, these lessons would work well embedded in larger units on activism and social change or slavery and freedom.

In these lessons, your students will learn about the complex history of abolitionist thought in this country. They will develop their understanding by identifying and articulating the various arguments that people made against the institution of slavery and the different proposals made to try and end slavery. They will analyze documents to learn that anti-slavery ideas and emancipation plans changed over time, depending on their author, audience, and context. In the process, your students will develop historical thinking skills and learn historical concepts by answering the central historical questions with evidence from primary sources.

These primary sources will pose some challenges for students, not the least of which is their length. For this reason, you may choose to present students with the modified documents, also included in the lesson plans under "Other Materials."

Note that the practice of adapting historical documents for the secondary classroom is supported by education research; for an introductory discussion, see “Tampering With History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers” by Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin, 2009.

These lessons use an approach developed by the Stanford History Education Group. (See an intro to the model in this post on HSP’s Educators Blog.) They both consist of the following steps:

  • Building background knowledge

  • Posing a historical question

  • Analyzing primary sources

  • Answering the question in discussion or in writing, using the primary sources as evidence

Any history teacher can craft their own lessons using these steps and drawing on the Historical Society’s tremendous digital resources to find primary sources. These model lessons are intended to serve as templates.


17th century

19th century


African American

Colonial period

American Revolution

Civil War



Big Ideas

US History

Essential Questions

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


Historical Concepts (from the Historical Thinking Project)

Continuity and Change

  • History is a complex mix of continuity and change, progress and decline. Understanding this concept helps students avoid thinking of history as a mere list of events.

Historical Perspectives

  • “The past is a foreign country,” filled with diverse perspectives. Understanding this concept helps students comprehend the range of human behaviors and beliefs.

Ethical Dimensions of History

  • While we must understand the differences between bygone eras and our own time, we should also ask ourselves which histories we choose to remember and whose stories we choose to tell. Understanding history can also help us contextualize contemporary ethical issues.


Historical Thinking Skills (from the Stanford History Education Group)


  • Students will learn to analyze the impacts of authorship, purpose, form, and audience on the interpretation of a source.


  • Students will learn to situate documents in context, understanding the impact of circumstances on content.

Close Reading

  • Students will learn to analyze author’s claims, evidence, and language.

Background Material for Teacher

End of Unit Assessment

The beauty of structuring lessons around a historical question is that the assessment or culminating activity for each lesson is quite natural: students need to answer the question! In doing so, they must make justifiable historical claims and use evidence from the primary source documents to support those claims. Teachers can ask students to do this as a written assignment or as a class discussion (or both).


Plans in this Unit

Arguing Against Slavery

Ending Slavery

Grade Level

Middle School

High School


PA Core Standards

CC 8.5.9-10.A

CC 8.5.11-12.A

CC 8.5.9-10.I

CC 8.5.11-12.I

About the Author

Jessica Tyson is a high school history teacher from Oakland, California, on sabbatical in Philadelphia.


Blog Post

The Craft of Teaching with Primary Documents: It's All About the Question

Attention Teachers!

Let us know how you used this plan and be featured on our site! Submit your story here.

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