ALL created equal…well, maybe not everyone

The argument over slavery already existed as we formed our Constitution but the word slavery is not in the document. Were the founding fathers for the continuation or the elimination of slavery? This question continued to plague our nation until the Civil War.

Historical Background

Some wanted slavery in the Declaration of Independence calling it an evil thrust upon us by the King. Then details of representation, slave trade and slave runaways were addressed in the Constitution, but the word slavery was never used. George Mason refused to sign the Constitution because he was frustrated by the lack of action regarding slavery….What was the general feel of the founding fathers and how do modern historians judge these figures?

Students have read about the Land Ordinance of 1787 and are aware that it forbade slaves in the Northwest Territory. Students have studied the Constitution as it is lays out the functions of our government. They have read the three compromises of the Constitution and are aware of the impact on slaves’ lives. They are looking at this material now through the lens of slavery.

Lesson Objective

Students determine whether or not the founding fathers wanted slavery to expand in the United States by analyzing and comparing multiple primary documents to complete an exit card.



  1. Warm up “Word Splash”: Project the following list of words and phrases for the students to consider: “A More Perfect Union,” “All Men Created Equal,” “A Government for the People and by the People,” “Liberty and Justice for All,” and “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
  2. Pose the question: What feelings, thoughts, and ideas come to mind with these phrases? (Sample responses: these are the foundation of American Culture and these words and phrases are in documents, anthems, and the Pledge of Allegiance to reflect our ideals)
  3. Teacher Introduction to the students: The founding fathers waged war against Great Britain to escape a tyranny. They felt “enslaved” by the British unfair government and trade practices towards the colonies. The founding fathers sought out to create what they penned to be “A More Perfect Union” or a government that was more perfect than any other in existence. When they created this government, did they consider the lives of the slaves? Did the founding fathers support slavery or the elimination of slavery with the way that they wrote the constitution?
  4. Assign students into groups of 4 people per group. Ask each student to take a role: (a) Materials manager, (b) Reader, (c) Discussion leader, or (d)Presenter. These roles will rotate as students move through each of the documents. If you use all 8 documents, each student will have each role twice.
  5. Hand out the Graphic Organizer called “Founding Fathers and Slavery.” Introduce the Claim/Support/Question reasoning routine. The students will read multiple documents. After each document they will do the following: (1) Make a claim about the topic: The claim is an explanation or interpretation of some aspect of the topic. In this instance, students will identify whether or not the document claims that the founding fathers supported the existence of slavery or the elimination of slavery.(2) Identify support for your claim. Support: Things you see, feel, and know that support your claim. Students will pull quotes that support the above claim. (3) Ask a question related to your claim. The Question: What’s left hanging? What isn’t explained? What new reasons does your claim raise?
  6. The teacher will guide the students to look at one document at a time. With each document they will answer the question, “Did the founding fathers support slavery or the elimination of slavery?” With each piece of evidence they read they will justify their claim with support from the document. They will ask one question for each document (question to determine what other information would they like to see? Learn?) They will come together as a group to discuss what new evidence this document shares.
  7. The Materials Managers will take out their copy of the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and give it to each group member. The reader will read the document to the group. The leader will guide the group to fill out the chart. “What does the document say about slavery?” (King forced it upon us, it was evil, etc).”Support Claim: Why do you think that?” (conversation about slavery had begun, some found it to be wrong)
  8. Bring the class back together for a full group discussion. The presenters of the group will share out what their groups wrote on the chart. Students will have a difficult time with making inference to support their claim at first. Students often restate the document ideas in simpler words. This exercise will provoke them to try and make inferences as a group. That is why it is valuable to guide them step by step through the earlier documents.
  9. Have the material manager collect the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence paper. As a teacher decide how well the students are doing making inferences in the “Support Claim” boxes to determine when they can work at their pace versus stopping to review each document. Have the students rotate the jobs with every document to ensure that each child has the opportunity to be a materials manager, reader, leader, and presenter. As the groups review each document they will find the following information: (1) Declaration of Independence. The teacher will explain that the first and the last excerpts are the same exact words, but that it has been edited. Claim: They will find that references to slavery have been removed. Support Claim: Why do you think that? The founding fathers needed south to fight for independence. May not have fought/singed with slavery discussed as an evil.(2) Northwest Ordinance. Claim: no slavery in Northwest Territory Support Claim (possibilities): How easy was it to make the laws during the Articles of Confederation? (Very difficult) If this became law, what does that say about the founding fathers? (they did not want/need slavery in the Northwest Territory) Why? (possibly do not need it, possibly do not like slavery) What does it say about the southern territory? (not discussed in the document) (3) Constitutional Compromises Claim: 3/5’s Compromise, Trade Compromise, Fugitive Slave Compromise. Support Claim: Here students will see that the argument is less straight forward. The documents say that they will eventually end slave trade but they will capture runaways. I will ask students to deduct this one on their own and circulate to see what they write.
  10. Have groups report out what they learned from each source to ensure that they understand what the founding fathers said and did.
  11. Transition: now students will look at 4 sources written by modern historians to how they interpreted history.
  12. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (in materials) Claim: most students will refer to the idea that “at least fifteen members owned slaves” Support Claim: will vary, but take the opportunity to point out that the factories needed cotton.
  13. Howard Zinn: Claim: slaves not represented at the Constitutional Convention and their interests were not reflected. Support Claim: founding fathers were more interested in their own economic needs and building an economically secure nation than freeing slaves.
  14. The Law of American Slavery: Claim: founders “were more determined to fashion a new nation than they were to bring an end to slavery.” Support Claim: the US has fought a war, had one failed government, was financially insecure and had a terrible international reputation. There were more concerned about not failing than honoring the idea of all men created equal.
  15. The Founding Fathers and Slavery: Claim: “free blacks and free whites could not live harmoniously in American” Support Claim: While some may have wanted slavery to end, no Founding Fathers considered African Americans free, or slave, to be equal.
  16. After discussing all of the ideas students will be asked to complete the assessment.
  17. Closure: Display images of George Mason. Mason refused to sign the Constitution because it did not forbid the importation of slaves. While Mason was a large plantation owner who owned a number of slaves he felt it was a “slow poison” that “contaminated the minds and morals of the people.” Meanwhile, he did not free his slaves.


Students will complete a modified 3-2-1- Exit Ticket.

First they will choose one sentence: The founding fathers support the existence of slavery in the United States. or The founding fathers supported the elimination of slavery in the United States.

Second, the students will identify three reasons from the documents that support their first sentence.

Third, students will write two personal arguments why they believe the documents support their idea.


This lesson will be guided from reading to reading for everyone because it is introducing the idea of the DBQ. Discuss each document and what it says. Students with reading accommodations will have less reading. They will write the highlighted sections into the “Claim” box.

Rough Draft: Highlight the phrase “is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold?” Insert the questions next to the highlighted portion: Who is being bought and sold? (slaves) If the writer is calling this warfare, does he approve? (no) Explain this in the “Support Claim” box.

Declaration of Independence: will have been read and discussed before in previous classes. Ask students to see if the highlighted phrase is in the final draft. When the see that it is not there, guide them so write nothing “Claim box”. Ask: Why do you think they left it out? Write the answer in the “Support Claim” box.

Northwest Ordinance: Highlight the phrase “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the territory” and “any person escaping …may be lawfully reclaimed.” Insert the questions next to the highlighted portion: Is slavery legal in the Northwest? What happens to slaves who run away? Do the writers of this law want slavery in the new territory? Answer in the “Support Claim” box

Constitutional Compromises will have been read and discussed in previous classes.

An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution highlight “at least fifteen members owned slaves” Insert Question: What are the slaves farming? (cotton) Who will buy the cotton? (manufactures) Is there anyone else on this list who will benefit from cotton grown by slaves?

Howard Zinn: Highlight: “Four groups… were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property. And so the Constitution did not reflect interests in those groups.” Insert the questions: Were slaves represented at the Constitutional Convention? (No) Do you think any of the groups spoke up on behalf of the slaves?

The Law of American Slavery: Highlight the founders ”were more determined to fashion a new nation than they were to bring an end to slavery.” Insert the question: What do you think the founders needed to concentrate their energy on instead of ending slavery? List three ideas in the “Support Claim” box.

The Founding Fathers and Slavery highlight “free blacks and free whites could not live harmoniously in American” Insert: List one reason in the “Support Claim” that the author might feel that the free whites would not be able to live with free blacks And one reason free blacks would not be able to live with free whites.


Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence: rough draft” (12/12/11)

Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence, (11/21/11)

Northwest Ordinance of 1787, “Article 6,” (transcript). Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents

Constitution of the United States 1787, Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents, (11/21/11)

Beard, Charles A., An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, 1913.

Visible Thinking, (3/21/12)

“The Lincoln-Douglass Debates,” The Internet Archive, (3/21/12)

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