Learn American History through 50 pop songs

The Slavery Question


In the 19th century the debate over the institution of slavery continued and intensified. Many factors played into the debate; moral, economic, political. Different industries, different geographical locations, and different economic statuses all contributed to the on-going question as to whether the practice of slavery should or should not continue in the United States.


© Copyright 2010 by Mr. and Mrs. Gillenwater

United States - states united
But in fact it wasn’t so
North and South – south and north
Tensions twist and grow

The slavery question played on the lips of the nation
Fueling angry division, and splintered off sectionalism
Allegiance to country fell away at jagged borders
With deepening regional loyalty, America is bound and quartered

Stretched at weakened seams a fiery debate roars and rages
Should slavery burn its way into America’s new blank pages?

Should states be slave or free, what was prudent, moral, fair and wise
A definitive answer eluded all, so they settled on the Missouri Compromise
At latitude 36
they drew a line dark and deep
Below it states could have slaves, above it states would be free

Stretched at weakened seams a fiery debate roars and rages
Should slavery burn its way into America’s new blank pages?

In the South they had King Cotton
An economy ruled by fluffy white seed
Only sprawling plantations
Could meet the endless need
For cotton picked by calloused hands
By the enslaved woman, child, and man
Whose blood drips from the thorny plants
And taints the land… yeah taints the land


Cause in the North they had factories
An economy ruled by smoggy brown greed
Only a constant whirling engine
Could meet the endless need
For textile goods demanded throughout the land
By every woman, child, and man
Who daily dress in cotton picked
By slave hands

United States - states united
But in fact it wasn’t so
North and South – south and north
Tensions twist and grow

But 50 years later the slavery debate still howled
First with the Compromise of 1850, then the Kansas-Nebraska Act that followed
The first stated Northerners had to return runaway slaves
And the other that slave status could be decided by new states

Now the North was up in arms and abolishment many pledged
Then the Dred Scott Decision sent things right over the precarious edge

Scott had sued to get his freedom, the Supreme Court made the call
They coldly said Scott was property and therefore not a citizen at all
That was just about the straw that broke our crippled nation’s back
And an all out civil war was the next stop along the track

Stretched at weakened seams a fiery debate roars and rages
Should slavery burn its way into America?


Slavery— A form of forced labor in which people are considered to be the property of others. Slavery existed in the United States from its inception until 1865.

Sectionalism— Sectionalism is loyalty to the interests of one's own region or section (the North and the South United States) of the country, rather than the nation as a whole.

Missouri Compromise/Latitude 36— The Missouri Compromise was an agreement passed in 1820 between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in Congress, involving the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30' N.

King Cotton— A phrase used in the Southern United States mainly by Southern politicians and authors who wanted to illustrate the importance of the cotton crop to the Confederate economy before and during the American Civil War.

Plantations— A large farm or estate that produces mass quantities of crops for sale to distant markets. In the American South many plantations used slave labor on their cotton plantations.

Factories— Large industrial buildings where workers manufacture goods. In the North, many factories were textile manufacturers which made clothing from cotton from the southern plantations.

Compromise of 1850— An intricate package of five bills, passed on September 4, 1850, defusing temporarily contention between the slave states of the South and the free states in the North. Included in these five bills was the Fugitive Slave Law, which required officials in all states, including free states, to actively assist with the capture and return of runaway slaves.

Kansas-Nebraska Act— The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on May 30, 1854. It allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery.

Dred Scott Decision— Dred Scott (1799 – September 17, 1858), was a slave who sued unsuccessfully in St. Louis, Missouri for his freedom in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857. The ultimate decision was that, as a person of African descent, Dred Scott was not an American citizen and could not legally utilize the court system. This decision fanned the flames of the escalating debate over slavery.

Tiered Questions

Tier 1 Questions

What was the Missouri Compromise?

What was the Compromise of 1850?

What was the Kansas-Nebraska Act?

Tier 2 Questions

Compare and contrast the northern and southern sentiments about slavery.

Tier 3 Questions

How would the end of slavery change life in the south? How about the north?

Test Prep Questions

1) The Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) helped to increase sectional conflict because the decision

  • (1) denied Congress the power to regulate slavery in the territories
  • (2) allowed for the importation of enslaved persons for ten years
  • (3) prohibited slavery in lands west of the Mississippi River
  • (4) gave full citizenship to all enslaved persons

2) Which statement about the Missouri Compromise (1820) is most accurate?

  • (1) Slavery was banned west of the Mississippi River.
  • (2) Unorganized territories would be governed by the United States and Great Britain.
  • (3) The balance between free and slave states was maintained.
  • (4) The 36°30' line formed a new boundary between the United States and Canada

3) In the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas- Nebraska Act of 1854, popular sovereignty was proposed as a way to

  • (1) allow northern states the power to ban slavery
  • (2) deny southern states the legal right to own slaves
  • (3) allow settlers in new territories to vote on the issue of slavery
  • (4) overturn previous Supreme Court decisions on slavery

4) Which heading best completes the partial outline below?

  • I.____________________________________
  • A. Nullification crisis
  • B. Kansas-Nebraska Act
  • C. Dred Scott v. Sanford
  • D. Election of Lincoln (1860)
  • (1) Foreign Policies of the United States
  • (2) Government Policies Toward Native American Indians
  • (3) Consequences of Manifest Destiny
  • (4) Causes of Sectional Conflict

5) This poster from the 1850s appeared in response to the

  • (1) passage of the fugitive slave law
  • (2) start of the Civil War
  • (3) issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation
  • (4) enactment of the 13th Amendment

6) As the United States acquired more land between 1803 and 1850, controversy over these territories focused on the

  • (1) need for schools and colleges
  • (2) failure to conserve natural resources
  • (3) expansion of slavery
  • (4) construction of transcontinental railroads


Historical Context: During the 1800s, the federal government promoted westward expansion in a variety of ways. This expansion changed the shape and character of the country.

Task: Using information from the documents and your knowledge of United States history, answer the questions that follow each document in Part A. Your answers to the questions will help write the Part B essay in which you will be asked to

  • Describe the actions taken by the federal government that led to westward expansion during the 1800s
  • Discuss the impact of westward expansion on the United States

Stephen Douglas replied to Abraham Lincoln’s question about the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a speech given at Freeport, Illinois. This reply occurred during the second debate in the political contest for the United States Senate seat from Illinois in 1858.

. . . The next question propounded [put forward] to me by Mr. Lincoln is, can the people of a Territory in any lawful way, against the wishes of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution? I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump [platform] in Illinois, that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution. Mr. Lincoln knew that I had answered that question over and over again. He heard me argue the Nebraska bill [Kansas-Nebraska Act] on that principle all over the State in 1854, in 1855, and in 1856, and he has no excuse for pretending to be in doubt as to my position on that question. It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature, and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave Territory or a free Territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill. I hope Mr. Lincoln deems my answer satisfactory on that point. . . .

Source: Stephen Douglas, Freeport Doctrine, 1858

According to this document, how did the Kansas-Nebraska Act attempt to resolve the issue of slavery in the territories?

Thematic Essay 1

Theme: Government—Supreme Court Decisions
The United States Supreme Court has played a major role in United States history. The Court’s decisions have had a significant impact on many aspects of American society.

Task: Select two Supreme Court cases that have had an impact on American society and for each

  • Describe the historical circumstances surrounding the case
  • Explain the Supreme Court's decision in the case
  • Discuss an impact this decision has had on American society

You may use any appropriate Supreme Court case from your study of United States history. Some suggestions you might wish to consider include Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), Northern Securities Co. v. United States (1904), Korematsu v. United States (1944), Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964), Miranda v. Arizona (1966), Roe v. Wade (1973), and United States v. Nixon (1974)