How Did the North Really Feel?

In studying the causes of the Civil War, students often believe that the whole of the Northern United States stood against slavery and the whole of the South was for it. This lesson focuses on looking at primary source documents from the North and the South from 1850 to the beginning of the Civil War to show the different perspectives with regards to slavery and abolition through close reading and sourcing.

Historical Background

Students have been learning about the structure of the southern and northern economy, and are about to begin the various social movements that begin in the early 19th century. As we study the causes of the Civil War, slavery appears as a central issue. Too often in this discussion it feels like a North v. South Sentiment, as stated above, but, in fact, there were complexities on both sides. The Grimke sisters were originally from the South and there were many anti-abolition preachers in the North. There were Northern copperhead politicians and Southerners foreshadowing the economic weaknesses of slavery. The goal is for students to not immediately jump to the conclusion that all Northerners were ready to embrace abolition and not all Southerners were willing to take up arms in their fight to protect the institution of slavery.

The years between 1850 and the Civil War are particularly important to this understanding. Bracketed by the Compromise of 1850 and the War itself, students can see how these opinions, left out of historical generalizations, shape the debate. It is also helpful because students study Daniel Webster’s Speech to the Senate on March 7, 1850. Again, here is a northern politician making some strong accusations that abolitionists are the reason that discord between the groups exists. This lesson, taught after Webster’s speech, could emphasize this idea that Webster’s views were not anomalous, and the variation in views about Slavery was not confined to geography.

Finally, this lesson is useful when taught just before the lesson on different historian’s interpretations about the causes of the Civil War. It would be interesting to see if, after your students have analyzed the differing views of Northerners and Southerners about Slavery, if they have tipped the scales too far and now do not see slavery as a regional issue at all. The lesson, which is “Historical Interpretation: Causes of the Civil War” can act as a barometer of their understanding of the lesson presented here.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to analyze primary source documents for perspective and context in order to create a better view of the Northern and Southern views of Slavery by completing document analysis worksheets and exit cards.



  1. Student will watch a brief video from the History Channel (“The Abolitionist Movement”) and answer questions about the Abolitionist Movement on their Video Capture Sheet.
  2. Students will discuss briefly their generalizations about the connection between geography and feelings about slavery based on the History Channel Video. They will use the questions on their capture sheet about the abolitionists, particularly the one asking them to make a generalization. It may be useful to review the definition of “generalization” and give a few examples.
  3. Student will look at one of the 7 documents. Groups will be chosen by heterogeneous placement pre-selected by the instructor. The documents include two pro-slavery pieces from Northern writers, Vallandigham and Solomon and three from anti-slavery Southerners, Helper and Grimke. The final two documents are from pro-slavery Southerners.
  4. Ask students to highlight or underline key words, particularly those that have a strong association with being in favor of slavery or against slavery.
  5. Have they use these highlights to fill in the main idea and the perspective on their Hypothesis Sheet.
  6. Students will use the information from the Main Idea to create a hypothesis about whether their document comes from the North or the South and justify why.
  7. Students will jigsaw to look at multiple documents. They will fill out the bottom of their hypothesis sheet, finding words and phrases that are similar or different between pro-slavery and anti slavery perspectives.
  8. Students will then receive a brief biography of the author who wrote the document they are looking at. In some cases it will confirm their hypothesis, in others it will not. They will spend five minutes in a Think Pair Share to justify why this might be. Prompt them to think about why they made their prediction in the first place. Prompt them to think about why people might not agree with each other, even when they’re from the same region. Prompt students to think about why people would be for or against slavery no matter where they are from.
  9. They will then fill out the exit card as a group determining the overall feelings for and against slavery and proving or disproving their original generalization. This card also gives them an opportunity to think about why we make generalizations in the first place.


None- If it is 45 minute class periods, you may want to assign the exit ticket for homework, or hand it out the next day.


Exit Ticket


Heterogeneous groups. Model Exit ticket for students who need more scaffolding for their writing.


“The African American Mosaic.” Library of Congress. 23, July 2010.

“The Abolitionist Movement.” History Channel, 1996-2012.

American Periodicals, a database in ProQuest

Kennedy, David M. and Thomas Bailey. The American Spirit: Volume 1: To 1877. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

The Record of the Honorable C.L. Vallandigham. Columbus: J. Walter & Co. 1863.

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