Meauring the Growth of Slavery: 1790-1860

Meauring the Growth of Slavery: 1790-1860
Anna Harrison: Religion, Social Issues and Reform

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: One or two class periods


What was often called “the slavery question” had not been settled in the writing of either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  In fact, it continued to plague the country well before the Civil War.  Beginning with the first national census (1790), free and slave black populations were categorized differently.  This census, with its first “snapshot” of the American nation, occurred when Anna Harrison was 15 years old. Since the census was taken every ten years (as it is today), and since Anna Harrison lived to be 88 years old, she saw seven decades of the growth of slavery until the Civil War finally ended it.


Researching for numerical data and then displaying that data in a logical way are important social studies skills.  The purpose of this lesson is to allow students to develop these necessary skills while at the same time getting a picture of the newly independent nation.  This was our nation’s first attempt to ascertain just who we were.  Looking at data from the following 7 censuses (through 1860) will allow students to see the increasing issue of slavery in our nation’s life.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet;  unlabeled map of the United States (state boundaries drawn but not named);  First Ladies Library Timeline: KW = Slavery.


1.  This lesson can be done by small groups or by each individual student contributing to the whole at the discretion of the teacher. 

2.  Using actual census data, develop a graph showing the growth in the slave and free black population from 1790 to 1860. 

3.  Answer the following question:  What are the differences in the ways in which black populations were categorized and counted by the census?

4.  Using a map of the states in the Union in 1860, show the relative distribution by state of slaves and free blacks.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by asking students to write short papers on a particular aspect of the growth of slavery, e.g., the laws governing slaves, how slaves lived, etc.

Sources & Resources:


Historical Census Data

Blank Map of U.S., Circa 1861



This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland and adapted by Bette Brooks.