Lesson Plan 8: Slavery and the Legal Status of Free Blacks: Rhetorical Analysis of Debates During the 1847 Illinois Constitutional Convention 

by Tara L. Dirst

In high school American history classes, the coming of the Civil War is the primary focus of teaching when dealing with the era between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Slavery as an economic system and as a moral abomination is discussed as one of the primary issues that contributed to the coming war. Very often, however, textbooks gloss over the actual arguments that people had and simply state that people were either pro-slavery or abolitionist, rather than exploring the spectrum of opinion, ranging from outright abolition to slavery allowed in any state the voted for it (popular sovereignty), with colonization to restriction of slavery with its natural eventual demise somewhere in between. Today, rational people agree about the moral repugnancy of slavery, and are left with simplistic ideas about why many people supported the institution of slavery and why it was so difficult to eliminate that "peculiar institution."

In this lesson plan, students will read actual arguments regarding the status of free blacks in Illinois and slavery in the United States more generally. In order to more effectively interpret the materials (which may be offensive to some readers), students should be offered a perspective from which to read such debates. The arguments put forth by Stephen Hartnett in his book Democratic Dissent & Cultural Fictions of Antebellum America can be used as a basis for reading the primary documents. This will also allow students to have better insight into the actual craft of historical inquiry and rhetorical analysis while at the same time focusing their reading in a more analytical fashion.


  • Students will categorize arguments over African-Americans' rights made by delegates to the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1847 based upon Hartnett's paradoxes.
  • Students will interpret the rationales for such arguments.

Terms to Know:

  • Rhetoric
  • Paradox

Materials Needed:

Time Required:

  • Two 50-minute class periods

Student Preparation:

  • Students should read the appropriate textbook section that discusses slavery and the abolition movement.

1st Day:

Give a little background about the status of blacks in Illinois. Slavery existed in Illinois since the time that the French came. When Illinois became part of the Northwest Territory, after being ceded by Virginia, slavery was technically outlawed, however, the Northwest Ordinance was interpreted by first Territorial Governor to mean simply that no new slaves could enter the territory. Later, slavery was subsumed under the guise of indentured servitude. When the Illinois Constitution was being drafted in 1818, there were competing interests: those that wanted slavery as indentured servitude continued and those that opposed slavery, even as indentured servitude. Since the drafters of the Constitution knew that a clause outlawing slavery would be necessary for Congress to accept the new state, they wrote the 1818 Constitution with that in mind…and with the intention of legislating black codes that could continue prior practices after Illinois was admitted as a state.

Ask the students to think of what kind of arguments could have been used by people trying to justify slavery? To oppose slavery? Write the list on the board.

Introduce the ideas of Stephen Hartnett (write them on the board so the students can record the three paradoxes). He argues that the rhetoric (the art of speaking persuasively) pertaining to the issue of slavery in antebellum America largely revolved around "three interrelated paradoxes" (statements that appear contradictory):

1. Even though many people believed slavery to be a moral wrong, they still felt that freeing slaves would harm the country.

2. Even though the nation was founded upon the idea of democracy, or the popular will, debates over slavery were often based on interpreting and re-interpreting what the founders said about it (in order to suit their own needs.) Ask the students if they can think of any examples of this kind of rhetoric today (there are many examples of politicians using "what the founders intended" types of arguments to advocate for their particular position).

3. Even though slavery was a popular subject of discussion, the arguments were often not about the institution of slavery or slaves themselves, but rather as a discussion over slavery as a metaphor for other issues like Southern power, the tension between democracy and social inequality, the issue of democracy under geographic expansion, etc. Although Hartnett doesn't explicitly say this, I would argue the discussion of states' rights vs. federal power is also an example of this.

Hartnett also argues that underlying these 3 paradoxes is the general belief white superiority (supremacy).

Elicit discussions on each of these paradoxes to make sure the students understand them and to see what students initially think about their accuracy.

Hand out the readings, and for the next class period, students should read them with Hartnett's arguments in mind. For each argument given in the readings, students should:

a) explain what the arguments are at face-value

b) for each argument, state whether it is a type listed by Hartnett (and if so, which one)

c) if it isn't listed by Hartnett, what kind of appeals are being made? Can you make any generalizations about this kind of argument?

Even though the results will be presented by groups, individual students will need to turn in their written answers to the questions for a grade.

Hand out Mr. Church's remarks to the class and have them read it so as a class you can analyze it in this way so the students have an understanding of tomorrow's assignment.

In-Class Reading Assignment: (Mr. Church's Speech)

Allow students time to read Church's statement and then elicit an in-class discussion. Have them answer questions a-c from above. The following are potential answers:

a) Church argues that the proposed resolution prohibiting free blacks from entering the state, or allowing slave owners from entering the state in order to free their slaves is: 1) a moral wrong and 2) a violation of the founders' intent.

b) The first argument stating that the resolution is a moral wrong because it oppresses blacks is part of Hartnett's 1st paradox, however, nowhere does Church argue that free blacks in Illinois or the elimination of slavery in the United States generally would cause the downfall of the nation.

The second argument stating that the resolution violates the Northwest Ordinance and the Declaration of Independence confirms Hartnett's 2nd paradox.

c) Church's main thrust is really about his moral opposition to slavery.

Hand out the reading assignments for tomorrow.

2nd Day:

Break the students into groups where they will check their findings against the others. They should select a speaker to present their findings to the rest of the class. After 10 minutes of group discussion, call on the group presenter to tell the class what they found about the arguments. Ask the students additional questions about the readings to stimulate the discussion. Here are some possible questions:

Assigned Reading Groups and Notes/Additional Discussion Questions on Each Reading:

Group 1: Mr. Bond's Resolution and Speech and Mr. Brockman's Remarks (Mr. Bond's Speech)

a) Bond argues that 1) free blacks must not be allowed in Illinois because they are a nuisance; 2) that Illinois has an obligation to protect the property rights in slaves of other states' citizenry; and 3) free blacks must not be allowed into Illinois until they have all of the rights of white freemen.

Brockman argues that blacks have no rights and they cannot live equally with whites, so therefore they should not live in Illinois (and presumably the rest of the country.)

b) Bond's argument that free blacks are a nuisance can be said to loosely correspond with the last half of Hartnett's 1st paradox, where he states that people in Antebellum America were concerned that free blacks would undermine the nation.

Bond's argument about property rights corresponds with Hartnett's 3rd paradox, where he is not talking about slavery as an institution, but rather slavery in the guise of property rights.

Bond's argument about free blacks not being allowed into Illinois unless they were given equal rights is a manipulation of an argument that corresponds with Hartnett's 1st paradox – Bond is playing on white fears of free blacks. (If the students don't give this answer, ask the additional discussion questions to see if they can come to this conclusion.)

Additional discussion questions: Do you think Bond is concerned with the moral problem of slavery? No. So why do you think he is supplying the last half of the equation…that free blacks will undermine Illinois? This is an example of using fear as a tool…Bond is playing on the fears of those who may be morally opposed to slavery but believe that free blacks may have a detrimental effect on society in order to get support for his resolution. Why do you think Bond included the argument that blacks shouldn't be allowed into Illinois unless they were free and equal with whites? Again, he is playing on the fears of those who may oppose slavery on moral grounds. Even though they may not have agreed with slavery, many people did not believe they should have equal rights. As we will see in Kinney's speech, this idea manifests itself in the argument that blacks will be able to marry "white daughters" if they are freely allowed into the state of Illinois…again an attempt to scare those who might advocate for the emancipation of slaves.

c) Brockman's argument is simply one that states that blacks do not have rights.

Group 2: Mr. Kinney's Speech 

a) Kinney, in his support of the resolution, argues that 1) blacks are lazy and worthless; 2) this isn't about abolition or slavery, anyway, it is about states' rights; and 3) if we should allow them equality (presumably simply the ability to come to Illinois), there would need to be social equality with whites – their right to "marry our daughters."

b) Much like Bond's argument, Kinney's argument that free blacks are a nuisance can be said to loosely correspond with the last half of Hartnett's 1st paradox, where he states that people in Antebellum America were concerned that free blacks would undermine the nation.

Kinney's argument about states' rights corresponds with Hartnett's 3rd paradox, where he argues that the question isn't about abolition or slavery at all…but rather about states' rights.

Again, like Bond, Kinney's argument about social equality is intended to create fear in potential abolitionists' minds, corresponding with Hartnett's 1st paradox.

c) Not applicable.

Group 3: Mr. Norton's Speech

a) Norton, in opposition to the resolution, argued that 1) it violated the Constitution because the Constitution does not explicitly say "white citizens," thereby concluding that black citizens have the same rights and privileges in all states – presumably the right to migrate.

b) Norton's argument clearly follows Hartnett's paradox 2 because he claims that the Constitution would not have been ratified if this had not been the understanding of those representing Northern interests.

c) Not applicable.

Additional discussion questions: This is a good time to introduce the Dred Scott decision (which occurred at a later date than these constitutional debates – 1857). If the students have read the textbook's section on the decision, ask what the Supreme Court would say about Norton's logic. If they haven't read the section, talk about the decision. What would the Taney court have said about the constitutionality of the resolution? That blacks were not entitled to the rights and privileges of citizens, so the resolution would have been legal.

Group 4: Mr. Pinckney's Speech 

a) Pinckney, in opposition to the resolution, states that this resolution is disgraceful and inhumane. He talks a lot about not being an abolitionist and not supporting slave escapes. He supports colonization because the people don't support equal rights and privileges, so they should go somewhere else.

b) This argument doesn't really follow any of Hartnett's descriptions.

c) His are largely moral arguments about the problem of slavery.

Additional discussion questions: Why do you think Pinckney said in some circles he is considered an abolitionist, while in others he is not? Why does he expressly assert that he is not an abolitionist?


Discuss the following in class (if short on time, have the students write a short essay on the following):
Did the readings generally support Hartnett's propositions? State whether you think Hartnett's descriptions were accurate and provide examples for how the readings did or did not reflect his statements.

State Standards Addressed:

  • 16.A.5b Explain the tentative nature of historical interpretations.
  • 16.D.4a (US) Describe the immediate and long-range social impacts of slavery.


  • All primary source readings are from: Cole, Arthur Charles, ed. The Constitutional Debates of 1847. Springfield, IL: Illinois State Historical Library, 1919.
  • Harris, N. Dwight. The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois and of the Slavery Agitation in That State, 1719-1864. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1904.
  • Hartnett, Stephen. Democratic Dissent & the Cultural Fictions of Antebellum America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Acknowledgments: The Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this lesson plan under the We the People Project.