The Debate on Slavery

The Debate on Slavery
Dolley Madison: Religion, Social Issues and Reform

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Four to five class periods


The foundation for the Civil War was laid in the Declaration of Independence when southern colonies refused to allow Jefferson’s language on the elimination of slavery in to the Declaration.  In order to get the Declaration passed, northern colonies accepted its elimination.  For the rest of Dolley Madison’s life, the debate over slavery continued, until finally erupting in the Civil War twelve years after her death.


The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students into the heart of the slavery debate by exposing students to the arguments and issues on each side. In this lesson, students will research the debate over slavery; some students should take the pro-slavery side and others the anti-slavery side. 

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Research materials.


  1. Divide the class into two groups.  One group is the pro-slavery and the other group is anti-slavery.
  2. Each student should take a role of a character such as a plantation owner, a legislator, a free Black, a slave, a northern abolitionist, etc.
  3. Students should spend two or three days researching their role and the issues on their specific side of slavery to get a feel for the arguments, to understand the milestones in the debate (e.g., the Missouri Compromise).
  4. The classroom should be configured to allow students to debate on the issue of slavery, presenting their positions from the point of view of their character.

Extending the Lesson:

  • Students provide maps and images during the debate to enhance the argument.
  • Students determine the “winner” of the debate and write about how history would have been different or the same.

Sources & Resources:


Pro-Slavery Arguments 

Pro-Slavery Advocates

Arguments in Support of Slavery

Abolition and Anti-Slavery Movements

Anti-Slavery Ideas

Antislavery views

Valley of the Shadow Project, Univ. of Virginia

Pictures from the Civil War


This lesson was developed by Dr. Averil McClelland and adapted by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University