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African American History Month


Lesson: Slavery at the Capitol: A Study in Contrasts (for Grades 8-12)

Time frame: 3-4 classes

Background: America, as we know, was founded on the principles of each man’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as Thomas Jefferson so eloquently wrote; however, that sentiment was only meant to apply to a small percentage of people living in the United States at the time, namely white, property-owning men, thus leaving a large proportion unrepresented in the new country, including slaves. While a reflection of the times, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, were meant to apply to a narrowly defined few and if white women or property-less white men were not going to be treated as equals under the law, then African Americans, whether free or slave, certainly would not either.

So, when it came time to construct the U.S. Capitol, a building that would house both chambers of the Congress—a body that was meant to embody and represent the people—it was to be built by slave labor, as was the White House. There is no denying the sad history of this country and slavery; nor can one deny the irony of having the American symbol of freedom and democracy, the United States Capitol, built by many of whom were considered three-fifths of a human being in our Constitution.

The legacy of slavery is still one this country is coming to terms with, but it is something that must continually be studied and acknowledged so that we can fully embrace our history, learn from the mistakes of our past, and move forward toward a better future for all Americans. This mini-unit seeks to help in achieving those goals and focuses on the story of the slaves who helped build the Capitol over its construction history from 1793 to 1863, and the overall issue of slavery in the United States during that same period.

Objectives: Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

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Demonstrate a working knowledge of the role that slaves played in constructing the US Capitol and in the District of Columbia in general
  • Speak knowledgably about the irony of having slave labor build the Capitol, as well as what that would mean as the extension of the 1850’s comes into play with the Civil War looming
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the story of the Statue of Freedom, what role Phillip Reid played in making that statue come to life and why that is significant, and what controversy arose when the final design for the statue was being worked out between Montgomery Meigs, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas Crawford
  • Define and explain the significance of the following terms and people: three-fifths clause, Statue of Freedom, Phillip Reid, Montgomery Meigs, Thomas Crawford, Abraham Lincoln, sectionalism, Jefferson Davis
  • Understand the difference and significance of the District of Columbia’s Emancipation Day versus the later Emancipation Proclamation

Essential and Content Questions: Teachers and students should answer these before and after the lesson to help gauge prior student knowledge, as well as a means to assess what they learned afterward.



Essential Questions

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What causes societal change over time?
  • What impact does evaluation of past events have upon future decisions?
  • How has the interpretation of history changed?
  • How can a government based upon democratic principles justify its rule if not all of its inhabitants are viewed as equals under the law? (The word inhabitant is used in place of citizen for purposes of the context of early America, wherein certain persons who would today be considered legal citizens were then not so considered).

Content Questions

  • 
What is slavery?
  • Why was slavery still legal in the United States at the time of its founding?
  • What is sectionalism and what impact would it have upon the tensions leading up to the Civil War?
  • What was the controversy surrounding sculptor Thomas Crawford’s first rendition of the Statue of Freedom and how was it resolved?
  • Who was Philip Reid and why is his story so ironic as concerns slavery, the Capitol, and the Statue of Freedom?
  • When were slaves in DC freed? When were slaves throughout the country freed? Why does this difference matter in general and also as it relates to the story of the Statue of Freedom?

Activities and Procedures: All or some of these activities can be done and all can be adjusted depending on age group, level of prior knowledge, make up of class, etc.

Day One

  • Introduce the lesson by having a class discussion related to the following: how could the framers of the Constitution and our founding fathers reconcile their beliefs about the natural rights of man—life, liberty, property—with the continuation of the institution of slavery in the newly formed United States of America?
    • Look at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: in what ways, if any, did the authors of both address the issue of slavery?
  • Write the answers to those questions on the board and have students write them in their notebooks.
  • Go over the essential and content questions and see what the students know about those things and again, write the answers on the board and have them write them in their notebooks.
  • Day 1 Homework: Have kids read the following: https://artandhistory.house.gov/art_artifacts/slave_labor_reportl.pdf. It is a report compiled by the House history department and is a very good and well researched overview of many of the issues surrounding slavery and the Capitol. Students should read the introduction up to the appendixes, which begin on page 17, and they should make general notes to be checked in the next class, as well as coming up with two questions or observations about the reading to be shared in class.

Day Two

  • Spend the first 15 minutes of class going over the reading and the student questions, after which they should turn them into you for a homework grade.
  • Begin a discussion about the connection between the expansion of the country and growing sectionalism. What is sectionalism? Why would westward expansion lead to increased sectionalism and tensions with the country and the Congress?
  • Have students look at and fill out analysis sheets on the following political cartoons:
  • You may split the class into three groups and have each group look at and analyze their cartoon before presenting to the whole class. At that time, those groups not presenting should be filling out their analyses on the cartoons being presented by the other groups. This activity may run into the next class period.
  • Once the analysis sheets are filled out be sure to collect them or mark them off for an in-class work grade or the equivalent. Be sure to have a closing class discussion on sectionalism, ensure that students understand the concept and how it was impacting the country and the Congress, and remind them that it will come up again whenever you do a culminating assessment.
  • Day Two Homework: Give students background reading on Philip Reid and the Statue of Freedom that is on top of the Capitol Dome. Here is a link to a lesson plan put together by the NCSS . I think just using pages 2-5, 9, and the timeline on 13 are good enough, just so they have the background story. After they have read the provided background materials, students should look up and write a definition for the word “irony,” after which students should write 2 to 5 complete sentences answering the question: why is the story of Philip Reid ironic? Students should, in answering this question, keep in mind the period of time and events that were occurring at this point in American history, who Philip Reid was, and what he was being asked to cast and put together.

Day 3

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Either begin class by finishing the political cartoon exercise and discussion of sectionalism OR begin a discussion of the story of Philip Reid and the previous night’s homework.
  • First talk about the time period, which was the beginning of the Civil War, etc. Be sure to mention that work on the extensions of the Capitol halted for the remainder of the war but the work on the new dome continued…why? Explain why Lincoln insisted that work on the dome continue through the war. What did that symbolize for the Union?
  • Next, go into the story of the Statue of Freedom and Philip Reid’s role in casting it, being sure to speak of the first version of the statue that sculptor Thomas Crawford came up with and why then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis objected to it and how Crawford reconciled that (please note that that part of the story is one you’ll have to look up because it is not part of the background reading the students were given, but it is a great story and easy to find online. Just a hint, it had to do with the cap that Freedom was wearing in the original depiction by Crawford).
  • Then get into the homework assignment by first asking the class to define “irony” or “ironic.” Once a suitable definition has been decided upon and it is up on the board, go ahead and ask the question that the students had to answer for homework and write the various reasons they come up with in a bulleted list on the board. Try to get as many kids to offer answers as possible.
  • Once that step is complete, you can talk about the emancipation of slaves in the District versus the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Why were the slaves in DC freed before slaves in the rest of the country? This document, produced by the DC government, is a good overall resource, but pages 12-15 speak specifically to the issue of emancipation. Why was the Emancipation Proclamation considered largely symbolic?
  • Wrap up the discussion and the lesson by talking about what Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would lead to down the road (i.e., 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments, etc.), as well as the legacy that the United States must face in having had slaves (and some paid workers) construct the Capitol in its various stages from 1793 to 1863.

Culminating Assessment/Activity


Upon completing the 3 to 4 day lesson on slavery and the Capitol, teachers may like to give a test or quiz of some kind to measure and assess student learning, though perhaps two alternative assessments to consider would be a paper or a class debate.

The paper could be a reflective piece or a research-based one that asks students to examine one of the several paradoxes or ironies within the lesson—slaves building the Capitol, Philip Reid casting the Statue of Freedom—and do an in-depth analysis of the factors and issues surrounding it, or perhaps just a straight reflection paper that goes over their overall impressions of the lessons within the mini-unit. Another paper option would be to have them answer one of the essential questions for the unit in the context of the issues discussed in the lessons. Regardless of which paper option you choose, if you choose one, students should be graded on grammar, spelling, structure and organization, as well as content, research, persuasiveness, and articulation and understanding of arguments and issues at play.

For a class debate, you could simply divide the class into members of Congress—Northern and Southern, pro- and anti-slavery alike—and have them debate the issue of slavery in America in the 1850’s. Each side would have designated roles and each side would have to present arguments from the time, using both primary and secondary sources, to assist them in doing so. You can decide what specific issues they should be addressing, but once the arguments are made, they should try and work to resolve the main issue, but do so from the perspective of the time in which they are supposed to be arguing. How do they move forward on the issue of slavery in the Union or do they resolve that war is the only option? Students should be graded on their speaking ability and performance, but especially on the content and persuasiveness of their arguments. A possible grading rubric for such debate can be found here.

Social Studies Teaching Standards Covered:

National – Era 3-Standards 2 and 3, Era 4-Standards 2 and 3
Virginia – USI.1, USI.7, USI.8, USI.9, CE.2, CE.3
Maryland – Grade 8, Standard 1.0 (Political Science), Topics A & C; Grade 8, Standard 5.0 (History), Topics B & C; High School, Standard 1(Political Science), Topics A & C; H.S., Standard 5 (US History), Topic A
DCPS – 8.2, 8.3, 8.5, 11.1, 12.1, 12.2

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