Lesson Plans

Civil War & Reconstruction

The Nation Divides
Author: Christine J. Valenti
School: Lakelands Park Middle
Grade Level: 8th
Time Estimated: 4-5 days

Enduring Understanding

One of the most debated issues at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 centered on the issue of slavery: Should states be obligated to return runaway slaves? How should states count slaves apportioning taxation and representation? Should Congress have the authority to regulate the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the interstate slave trade? The inclusion of the fugitive slave clause, the Three-Fifths Compromise, and the Commerce Compromise in the Constitution helped to temporarily settle these matters.

By including the fugitive slave clause to the Constitution, the 55 delegates gave slavery "extra-territoriality," which made slavery a national institution. Even though northern states could abolish slavery, they could not neglect their Constitutional obligation to enforce the south’s slave laws. A fugitive slave embodied the legal status of slavery, whether in a free state or a territory.

Due to the apparent lack of enforcement of this Constitutional obligation, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, another piece of pro-slavery legislation was enacted. In response to this law, many northern states passed personal liberty laws that gave runaway slaves the opportunity to have a jury trial. In some states, laws were passed that forbade state officials from helping to capture alleged fugitive slaves and forbade them from keeping runaway slaves in state jails. By 1842 the US Supreme Court decided that personal liberty laws were unconstitutional and that states could not pass other legislation to override this Fugitive Slave Law.

As tensions grew over slavery between the northern and southern states, a more rigorous fugitive slave law was passed as a part of the Compromise of 1850. With the addition of the free state of California to the Union, the balance between free states and slave states was tipped in favor of antislavery. Henry Clay, a representative from Kentucky, addressed Congress in early 1850: “It is desirable, for the peace, concord, and harmony of the Union of these states, to settle…all existing questions of controversy between them arising out of…slavery upon a fair, equitable, and just basis.” The Compromise of 1850 included the admission of California as a free state, the opportunity for the people living in the territories of Utah and New Mexico to decide whether they wanted to be free states or not, the end of the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made the federal government responsible for finding and apprehending fugitive slaves in the North and then sending them back to the South. Essentially this law gave the federal government permission to negate the legal processes already established in the North. In fact, all citizens, even white northerners who were against slavery, were required to help capture and return slaves escaped slaves to their owners. The federal government was empowered with the ability to force citizens, even against their wills, to take part in the seizure of fugitive slaves. Federal commissioners were appointed to hear testimony on whether a person was a slave or not. Since slaves were not allowed to testify, commissioners based their decisions on the owner’s testimony. Officers usually received five dollars if the alleged fugitive was set free and ten dollars if the alleged fugitive was returned to an owner. Essentially, commissioners were rewarded more for the return of a runaway slave. Unfortunately, even free African-Americans were not protected under this law.

The enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act galvanized the anti-slavery movement. Many Northerners who were not really impacted by the issue of slavery had to face the realities of this issue when they were required by law to apprehend fugitive slaves. It put the issue of slavery on a more human level for them: Am I going to help the authorities capture this runaway or am I going to help this human- being who is in trouble and will be returned back into slavery? Even though the Compromise of 1850 helped to avert a national crisis, the passage of the harsh Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 thrust the nation into even a deeper crisis in which Northerners became more passionate by abolishing slavery while Southerners became more defensive in the protection of their "property rights."


Analyze primary resources to explain how the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the issue of fugitive slaves escalated tensions between the North and the South, and led to the secession of several states and finally to war. Respond to an ECR writing prompt to demonstrate understanding of how the North and the South had different cultures and how these differences eventually drove them apart.


Unit 8.4 A Nation Divided and Rebuilt, 1840-1877
Lesson Sequences 1 and 2 "American Culture: Unity and Division" and "Struggle for Political Control: 1850-1861"


Download Complete Primary Resource Packet

Essay Rubric

Consider booking time in a computer lab for students to type the ECR.


Please refer to the Pre-Reading, During-Reading, and Post-Reading Activities for a description of the lesson procedures.

  • Lead students in the Pre-Reading Activity to introduce them to language that will be useful for them in reading the primary resources.
  • Introduce and guide students in the During-Reading Activities. Students will read and analyze excerpts taken from several primary resources that correspond to the issue of fugitive slaves (see the Materials section for a complete download-able list of these resources).
  • Students will use the information they learn from the During Reading Activity to develop an extended constructed response (ECR) to the following focus question:

    How did the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (part of the Compromise of 1850) reveal differences between the North and the South? Explain how this event contributed to division in American culture.


This lesson is designed to engage all learners in a heterogeneously mixed class of eighth grade US History students. Each of the seven primary resources showcased in this extended lesson has subsections with questions to analyze the main source. This extended lesson gives the educator the flexibility to require that all parts of the lesson be completed or just selected parts, depending on the individual needs of the student. Even though all eighth graders should be able to respond to an ECR writing prompt, the educator has the option to alter this part as well.

References: Books & Media

Constitution of the United States

"The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850"

"Notice of Anthony Burns 1854"

Portrait of Anthony Burns

Selected text from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Selected text and illustration from Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Selected text of Aunt Phillis's Cabin