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        Antebellum Agents of Change: Causes and Effects of Abolition | The African Americans

        In this lesson, students explore the concept of “cause and effect” as it relates to the abolition of slavery in the United States in the 1800s. Using clips from the PBS series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, students examine the causes and effects of events in the Antebellum period of American history that contributed to the end of slavery.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students explore the concept of "cause and effect"; as it relates to the abolition of slavery in the United States in the 1800s. Using clips from the PBS series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, students examine the causes and effects of events in the Antebellum period of American history that contributed to the end of slavery. Students also apply cause-and-effect-based thinking to current events. This lesson can be taught in a thematically-structured curriculum when teaching methods of historical thinking, or in a chronologically-structured curriculum leading up to the Civil War. The lesson reinforces two important tenets of historical study:

        • cause and effect analysis of major and minor events is a crucial component in the study of history;
        • and understanding the multiple factors that lead to, and arise from, events increase our comprehension of history as a whole.

        Time Allotment

        Two 45-minute class periods.

        Learning Objectives

        After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

        • Identify causes that led to the abolition of slavery;
        • Incorporate “cause-and effect” into historical thinking;
        • Project the effects that historical events may have on the future.

        Prep for Teachers

        Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

        Preview all of the video segments used in the lesson. Prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.


        For the class:

        • Computer, projection screen, and speakers (for class viewing of online video segments)
        • Chalkboard, whiteboard, or overhead projector

        For each group:

        • Flip chart paper and markers OR
        • Computer or tablet

        Media Resources

        Introductory Activity

        1. Begin by asking students for a definition of causality, or “cause and effect.” Once students have contributed their answers, provide them with this definition: Cause and effect is the relation between an event (cause) and a second event (effect), where the second event is understood as a direct consequence of the first. Write this definition on the board or show on overhead projector.

        2. Explain to students that cause and effect is one of the guiding principles of the study of history. We try to understand why events happen in order to develop a comprehensive view of historical events. For any given event in history we can find a cause, and an effect – oftentimes several of each.

        3. Write the following events on the board/overhead projector: The American Revolution The 1918 Flu Pandemic The first man walks on the Moon For each example, ask students what they think was the cause. Write answers on the board on the left side of the event. Explain that many events have multiple causes – it is rare that a major historical event will have one isolated cause. Often several factors cause an event to occur.

        4. Now that your students have identified some of the causes for these historical events, ask them to identify some of the effects. What impact did these events have on history? Write answers on the board on the right side of the event.Explain that much like with causes, events may have several political, cultural, social, and economic effects throughout history. These effects can be immediate – like the high mortality due to the flu virus – or can be felt much later on, like the resurgence of the H1N1 virus over 90 years later. We may not even know what some of the effects are yet – like future technological advances that may emerge from the space program.

        5. Explain to students that while you have given them relatively straightforward examples to work with so far, for many events in history both the causes and effects can be unclear, complicated, or disputed. It’s not always easy to pinpoint the causes or effects, and it can require a good deal of thought and analysis. As you move forward with the lesson, encourage students to adopt a “cause and effect” focused view of historical events.

        Learning Activities

        1. Tell students that the abolishment of slavery in the United States was a major event, with many causes and lasting effects throughout history. We know that the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation were significant causes that led to the end of slavery, but what is not often recognized is that there were many, many smaller events that contributed to abolition. Tell students that in the 40 or so years leading up to the Civil War, an era known as the Antebellum period, numerous social, economic, and political factors as well as individual actions contributed to the abolition of slavery. Tell students that you will be showing them a series of videos from the PBS series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross that discuss events in the Antebellum period. As they watch the videos, they should try to identify the cause(s) and effect(s) of the central event in the video.

        2. Tell students that the first video you are going to show them is about the revolution of the cotton industry. Play “Cotton Gin” for the class. When the video has finished, ask students to identify the cause(s) that led to the revolution of the cotton industry. What were some of the effects? Ask students what the term “Second Middle Passage” means.

        3. Explain to students that the Second Middle Passage and its impact on families and relationships led to deep-seated anger and resentment in slave communities. Some of these people were driven to take dramatic action. One of the more well-known uprisings was led by Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia. Play “Nat Turner Rebellion” and remind students to look for causes and effects. When the video has finished, ask students to name the cause(s) of the Rebellion. Ask students to identify the effect(s) of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Tell students that the increased determination to keep the practice of slavery in the South led to a more prominent divide with the North.

        4. Tell students that while Southern farmers and plantation owners were clinging to the institution of slavery, Northern abolitionists were also becoming more vocal and aggressive. White Northerners as well as free Black citizens were fighting for abolition. One man in particular, Frederick Douglass, had a major impact on the national abolition movement. Play “Frederick Douglass” for the class. When the video has finished, ask students to identify the cause(s) that led to Frederick Douglass becoming a national figure in the abolition movement. What effect(s) did this have on the country? Explain that although Douglass was one of the more well-known figures in the abolition movement, he was not the only slave to escape to the North.

        5. Tell students that as the nation remained divided over the practice and abolition of slavery, the government felt it needed to take action. The controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was implemented by the government but opposed by many in the country. Play “Fugitive Slave Act.” When the video has finished, ask students for an explanation of the Fugitive Slave Act. What caused the government to enact this law? How was the country affected by the Fugitive Slave Act?

        6. Explain to students that these events were important precursors to the abolition of slavery in the United States. Based on the video clips shown and the causes and effects identified by the class, ask students to help build a timeline of the events during the Antebellum period that contributed to abolition. Write answers on the board.

        7. Ask students if they can identify some of the effects and events that followed from these causes. Write answers on the board as part of your abolition timeline.

        8. Tell students that an important part of viewing history in the context of causality is determining which events are directly related, and which are not. Explain that there is a maxim in scientific research that also applies to history: Correlation does not equal causation. This means that two events may be related to each other in the same context, but are not understood to be direct causes and effects of each other. Ask students if any of the causes or effects they identified from the video clips may not be directly related to the abolition of slavery. Ask students how they can determine which events are causally related, and which are not. Oftentimes there are no set rules, we just have to properly contextualize the events and use critical thinking skills.

        Culminating Activity

        1. Now that the students have a grasp of cause and effect in historical study, ask them to apply it to modern-day events. Provide students with a list of major events in the United States from the 21st century.

        2. Break students into small groups or pairs and assign each group one current event. Give each group a piece of flip chart paper, or ask them to use a computer or tablet. In class, or as a homework assignment, have the groups/pairs create a timeline, similar to the one the class made for abolition, for their assigned event. The timeline should include causes as well as effects – if the effects are not yet known, students should project what the effects may be in the future. Students may use relevant websites, newspapers, and magazines to create their timelines.

        3. Have students present their work to the class when finished. Hang paper timelines around the classroom, or post digital timelines to a shared website.


        For extra credit, students may read The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and write a 1-2 page essay on the causes of Douglass’s rise to notoriety and the effects of his work as an abolitionist.


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