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:
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.
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.
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