Sectional Crisis (1850-1861) Activities for High School

Instructor: Heather Jenkins

Heather has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in special education. She was a public school teacher and administrator for 11 years.

The sectional crisis of the 1850s was the backdrop against which the differences between the northern and southern states continued to intensify. Use these activities to help students examine the sectional crisis and its effects on American history.

Road to the Civil War

The United States' northern and southern states have always been different, but never perhaps as different as they were during the sectional crisis of the 1850s. Students probably know a lot about the Civil War; however, they should also examine the events leading up to the war that created the great divide between the North and the South.

Consider using these activities to help students understand the sectional crisis.

Museum Exhibit

Students will choose objects to create a museum exhibit about an important event in the sectional crisis.


  • Timeline of the sectional crisis
  • Poster board
  • Markers

Teacher Directions

  • Show students a timeline of the sectional crisis.
  • Discuss important events on the timeline and how they contributed to the continual division of the northern and southern states. Consider discussing such events as:
    • Missouri Compromise
    • Fugitive Slave Act
    • Bloody Kansas
    • Dred Scott decision
    • John Brown's raid
    • Compromise of 1850
    • the Lincoln-Douglas debates
  • Divide students into small groups and provide each group with poster board and markers.
  • Assign each group one of the events from the timeline.
  • Students should pretend to be museum curators selecting artifacts that would help visitors visualize and learn more about their assigned event.
    • Students should select five items that represent their assigned event and its importance to the sectional crisis and draw the items on their poster board. For example, if a group was assigned the Fugitive Slave Act, students might draw a wanted poster to represent how escaped slaves could be caught by slave catchers hired by their former owners.
    • For each item, students should write a paragraph describing their object and its connection to their assigned event.
  • When students are finished, they will present their items to the class.

Discussion Questions

  • What event do you think had the greatest impact in dividing the North and South? Why?
  • What made the North and South so different?

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Engage students in examining the power of words in parts of Uncle Tom's Cabin as they discuss its impact on the sectional crisis.


  • Multiple copies of excerpts from Uncle Tom's Cabin
  • Highlighters

Teacher Directions

  • Discuss Harriet Beecher Stowe and her creation of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
  • Divide the class into small groups and provide each group with several copies of an excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin and highlighters. Select excerpts that provide examples of the life of a slave, such as Eliza's family being hunted or Tom being sold.
  • Each group will read through their copy of their group's excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin and highlight words on their copy that elicit an emotion from them.
  • In group, students will discuss the words they highlighted and the effects their excerpt may have had on those who were pro-slavery and those who were against it.
  • When students are finished, have groups summarize their discussions.

Discussion Questions

  • How might Uncle Tom's Cabin have contributed to the division of the northern and southern states during the sectional crisis?
  • What other authors have written books similar to Uncle Tom's Cabin about more current social issues and injustices? How did their books challenge the social constructs of their environment in the same way as Uncle Tom's Cabin?

Historical Action Figures

Students will create action figures based on influential people during the sectional crisis.


  • Pictures/drawings of people who were influential during the sectional crisis
  • Poster board
  • Markers

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