Making a Covenant with Death: Slavery in the Constitutional Structure

by Wendy Thowdis


US ConstitutionOur Documents

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2001.


Essential Question

Why did the Founders find it necessary to provide protections for slavery in the US Constitution?

Learning Objective       

To have students see that slavery was sanctioned throughout the Constitution by the Founding Fathers in three ways through provisions that:

  1. Dealt directly with slavery
  2. Resulted in the indirect protection of slavery
  3. Did not inherently favor slavery, but ultimately protected slavery when interpreted by the courts or implemented by Congress 


1. A jigsaw with responses posted on newsprint paper around the room: Divide students into six groups of four or five students each. Assign each group a “bullet” of readings below from the US Constitution. (Note: two groups will look at each of the bulleted sections.)

2. Give students a copy of the US Constitution with markings for each of the following sections:

Dealt directly with slavery:

Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 3
Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 1
Article 1V, Section 2, Paragraph 3

Resulted in the indirect protection of slavery:

Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 15
Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 5
Article II, Section 1, Paragraph 2
Article IV, Section 4
Article V

Ultimately protected slavery when interpreted: 

Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 17
Article III, Section 2, Paragraph 1
Article IV, Section 1

3. Have each group read through their section together and for each Article/Section, write how the Constitution deals with slavery in their own words.

4. Have each group select a recorder to write their main ideas on large poster print paper placed on the walls around the room. 

5. Have a different student explain what is written on the paper to the rest of the class as the jigsaw information is shared with the large group.

6. Set up a debate where students role-play the Founders at the Constitutional Convention deciding whether to include any specific language about slavery in the Constitution. To ensure that students discuss the important points, have them write out their arguments on index cards before this debate begins.

7. Have each student with a partner, create a 20-line written dialogue between a slave and a Founder who are discussing what should be included in the US Constitution about slavery. Research the name of a real slave and real Founder and include background information about the lives and beliefs of both characters so the dialogue will have historical accuracy. Make sure you include information learned from our jigsaw on the US Constitution, as well.

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