Lesson Plan: Perspectives on the Fugitive Slave Law Understanding Goal

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Lesson Plan: Perspectives on the Fugitive Slave Law
Understanding Goal:

The law is sometimes subjective and open to interpretation. The case of Sara Lucy Bagby shows there was friction for many people over following the law when it did not align with their personal convictions.

Investigative Question:

  • What was the Fugitive Slave Act?

  • How did the situation of Sara Lucy Bagby serve as a test case for the Fugitive Slave Act?

Primary Sources:

  • Fugitive Slave Act Excerpts

  • Abraham Lincoln Speech Excerpt

  • James Coles Bruce Speech Excerpt

  • Fugitive Slave Law Political Cartoon

  • “To The Cleveland Union Savers” Poem

Standards Addressed:

Virginia Standards of Learning

USI.1 The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to

  1. identify and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of events and life in United States history to 1877;

  2. make connections between the past and the present;

e) evaluate and discuss issues orally and in writing.

USI.9 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the causes, major events, and effects of the Civil War by

  1. explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions.

VUS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to

a) identify, analyze, and interpret primary and secondary source documents.

VUS.6 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the major events during the first half of the nineteenth century by

  1. describing the cultural, economic, and political issues that divided the nation, including slavery, the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements, and the role of the states in the Union.

CE.1 The student will develop the social studies skills citizenship requires, including the ability to

  1. examine and interpret primary and secondary source documents.

CE.2 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the foundations of American constitutional government by

  1. explaining the fundamental principles of consent of the governed, limited government, rule of law, democracy, and representative government.

CE.6 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the American constitutional government by

  1. explaining the relationship of state governments to the national government in the federal system.

GOVT.1 The student will demonstrate mastery of the social studies skills citizenship requires, including the ability to

c ) analyze political cartoons, political advertisements, pictures, and other graphic media.

GOVT.5 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the federal system described in the Constitution of the United States by

  1. describing the extent to which power is shared.

Length of Activity:

Variable, depending on whether students will be working alone, in pairs, or in groups.


This lesson shows the complexities of the Fugitive Slave Act. It uses four different perspectives to present the varying viewpoints on the law through the case of Sara Lucy Bagby. The Fugitive Slave Act is an important element in understanding sectional divisions leading up to the Civil War. The lesson sets the stage to see growing tensions that were not resolved by the Great Compromise of 1850.

Materials Needed:

Student Handout 1: Fugitive Slave Act Excerpts

Student Handout 2: Graphic Organizers

Student Handout 3: Biographies of Garrison, Lincoln, Bruce, and Bagby

Student Handout 4: Primary Sources on the Fugitive Slave Act

Student Handout 5: Fate of Sara Lucy Bagby

* All handouts can be downloaded with the PDF version of this lesson plan.
Historical Background:

Tensions over slavery existed throughout the early history of the United States, even before there was a United States. Members of the 1787 Constitutional Convention wrangled over a variety of issues related to the “peculiar institution”—taxation and representation based on enslaved members of the population (resulting in the 3/5 compromise); whether or not to end the nation's participation in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (solved by a 20-year nonintervention policy); and the return of fugitive slaves (a provision requiring their return was included in the final document, which was bolstered by another federal act in 1793).

At issue was not only how slavery was to be regarded under the law, but also where slavery would exist. One of the last acts of the government under the Articles of Confederation was to establish the Northwest Ordinance, banning the expansion of slavery into that territory. The same issue was at the heart of the controversy surrounding the proposed admission of Missouri to the Union in 1820, resulting in a compromise that established 36º 30′ as the northernmost boundary of slavery.

With the rise of abolitionism in the 1820s and 1830s in the United States, slave owners were forced to defend slavery as a “positive good” for all involved. During the early 1830s in particular, antislavery activists flooded Congress with petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in federal territories, submitting more than 300 petitions signed by 40,000 people. In 1836, southerners and their supporters in Congress instituted a “gag rule,” mandating that all such petitions be tabled and not heard by the body. Such a rule remained in force in the House of Representatives until 1844. These laws, however, only increased the determination of abolitionists, who submitted more than 400,000 signatures to Congress in 1838.

Controversies over slavery led to political wrangling between parties throughout the 1850s, from the Compromise of 1850, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, and then to the subsequent bloodshed in Kansas between 1854 and 1858. What's more, the political landscape proved especially volatile, witnessing the demise of the Whigs, and the rise of the Free Soil, American or Know-Nothing, and Republican parties. The great orator of the United States Senate, Daniel Webster, delivered his famous speech on March 7, 1850, in which he voiced his support for the compromise, criticized the North, and lambasted the idea of disunion.

The desire of California to enter the Union as a free state caused problems, as it would upset the balance of power between slave states and free states. Southerners were willing to stall to prevent California's admission. To satisfy the parties involved, an omnibus bill was pushed through Congress. This collection of legislation allowed for the admission of California, banned the slave trade in the nation's capital (something abolitionists were campaigning for), and gave slave owners a stricter fugitive slave law.

The last became the subject of great debate among antislavery activists and free blacks in the North. Of particular concern were provisions that made it a crime to interfere in the return of so-called fugitive slaves, and the paltry evidence needed to stake a claim. In reaction, many Northern localities passed what were known as personal liberty laws, stating that they were not required to abide by federal laws that they considered to be morally reprehensible. In 1851 antislavery activists rescued fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins from jail in Boston and whisked him away to safety and freedom in Canada. Three years later in 1854, Anthony Burns, also a runaway slave captured in Boston, was returned to his owner in Virginia over the protestations of the city's active abolitionists. These incidents provided fodder for the claims of southerners.

By 1860 slavery had become a political powder keg. Southerners expressed concern about the willingness of the North, and the federal government if it came under Republican control, to enforce and uphold laws pertaining to fugitive slaves. They eagerly looked for examples of violations and published them throughout the Southern press. Sara Lucy Bagby's capture became a true test case on the question of slavery and the Union. And timing was everything. In November 1860, Lincoln had just won election to the presidency, and by January 19, 1861, five states had withdrawn from the Union. Virginia, along with the other states along the border and in the lower South, watched the situation with great interest.

Teacher Actions:
1. Do-Now

  1. Ask students what they would do if they had a friend who broke a rule at school but the teacher/principal didn’t know who had done the misdeed. Would students protect their friend even though it was against the rules or would they turn in their friend to follow the rules?

2. Fugitive Slave Act

  1. Ask if anyone knows the definition of fugitive (Merriam-Webster: running away or intending flight). Come up with a working definition as a class.

  2. Explain the Fugitive Slave Act or hand out the excerpts (Student Handout 1) for students to read.

  3. Explain the story of Sara Lucy Bagby (see her biography in Student Handout 3: The Case of Sara Bagby) and the fact that people in Cleveland had to decide whether to break the law to protect her or follow the law and send her back to slavery.

3. Jigsaw Activity

  1. Give each student a copy of the graphic organizers in Student Handout 2. Divide students into four groups:

1. Garrison

2. Lincoln

3. Bruce

4. Bagby

  1. Students should read the biography (Student Handout 3) of the person assigned to their group and write important facts about the individual on the first graphic organizer.

  2. Students then should read the primary source from Student Handout 4 (cartoon, speech, or poem) pertaining to their assigned individual and write what they think their assigned individual would want to happen in the case of Sara Lucy Bagby.

  3. Assign members of each group a number, one to four, and then have students re-form in new groups according to assigned numbers (all the ones together, all the twos together, etc). Members of the new groups should then share their information with one another so that each student has both graphic organizers completed.

  4. Go over the graphic organizers as a class.

4. Analysis

  1. Have students write a letter to U.S. commissioner Bushnell White in Cleveland saying why he should obey the Fugitive Slave Act or not in the case of Sara Lucy Bagby.

5. Conclusion

  1. Students should read Student Handout 5: "The Fate of Sara Lucy Bagby." Students can compare the opinions they expressed in their letters to the commissioner in Cleveland with what actually occurred.

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