States Rights & The Civil War Lesson Plan

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

With this lesson plan, your students are going to examine the issues of slavery and states' rights in relation to the US Civil War. Students will use primary sources in order to help them evaluate the causes of the Civil War.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Define the relationship between the issue of states' rights and slavery in the buildup to the US Civil War
  • Explain the role of the Dred Scott Case and Fugitive Slave Act in the debate over slavery and states' rights
  • Analyze primary sources in terms of identifying the author's position and bias


60-90 minutes

Curriculum Standards


Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.


Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.


Evaluate an author's premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.


  • Printed copies of States Rights & the Civil War and lesson quiz.
  • Copies of 2-4 primary sources supporting and opposing the Fugitive Slave Act. If possible, try to find a mixture of visual and textual sources, i.e. posters, letters, diary entries, etc.


  • Start class by talking about the American Civil War.
    • What was the US Civil War?
    • What were the main issues at the heart of this conflict? Why couldn't Americans resolve these issues without war? How long had these been issues in American society?
  • Distribute copies of States Rights & the Civil War. Break class into small groups. Students will read this lesson in their groups, with one person reading aloud at a time, and switching readers with every paragraph. Have students read the sections ''What was the Civil War Really About?'', ''What are States' Rights?'' and ''States Rights and the Civil War''. Pause here to discuss this information.
    • Have you heard the idea that the Civil War was fought over states' rights before? What did this mean to you before today? What exactly were states fighting for, according to that argument? In what way might that be a way to discredit the idea that the Civil War was fought over slavery?
    • How did the issues of slavery and states' rights become intertwined in the mid-19th century?
  • Students will continue reading the lesson in their groups, completing the sections ''Examples of States' Rights Debates'', ''States Rights or Really Just Slavery'', and ''Civil War Breaks Out''. Discuss this information as a class.
    • What was the Fugitive Slave Act? What was the Dred Scott Case? How did each contribute to debates over slavery? How did each contribute to debates over states' rights?
    • How did the debates escalate into civil war?
  • Let students read through the ''Lesson Summary'', and then you may test their understanding with the lesson quiz.

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