9-12 New York


The goal of this inquiry is to introduce students to historiography as they wrestle with historical significance within the context of a historical controversy. The common narrative about the end of slavery has given credit to President Abraham Lincoln, who earned the nickname “The Great Emancipator.” However, over the past 30 years, many scholars have sought to revise this narrative, with a critical mass now arguing that the slaves freed themselves. Students look at the laws that emancipated certain slaves over time and then examine the arguments contemporary historians have made about who was responsible for freeing the slaves. This inquiry invites students to engage with the actual historical debate, but rather than focusing on the veracity of claims, students concentrate on the significance of the issues behind the claims. By looking at the controversy about who freed the slaves, students should understand why this issue matters 150 years later. It is important to note that, in their contrasting interpretations, scholars do not really disagree on the facts of emancipation, but rather on the interpretation of those facts. This crucial difference is key to helping students engage in what it means to think and act like historians.


Compelling Question:

Does It Matter Who Freed the Slaves?

Staging the Question:

Read and discuss excerpts from the Washington Post article “On Emancipation Day in D.C., Two Memorials Tell Very Different Stories” and view images of the Emancipation Memorial and the African American Civil War Memorial.

Supporting Question What legal steps were taken to end slavery?

Formative Task Create an annotated timeline that describes legal steps taken from 1861 to 1865 to end slavery.

Sources Source A: Excerpts from the Confiscation Acts
Source B: Excerpts from the Emancipation Proclamation
Source C: Thirteenth Amendment


Supporting Question What arguments do historians make about who ended slavery?

Formative Task Construct a T-chart that contrasts arguments that Lincoln freed the slaves with arguments that the slaves freed themselves.

Sources Source A: “Who Freed the Slaves?”
Source B: “Who Freed the Slaves?: Emancipation and Its Meaning in American Life”


Supporting Question What are the implications of the debate over who ended slavery?

Formative Task Develop an evidence-based claim that explains the implications of the debate over who ended slavery.

Sources Source A: “Who Freed the Slaves?”
Source B: “Who Freed the Slaves?: Emancipation and Its Meaning in American Life”

Summative Performance Task

Argument: Does it matter who freed the slaves? Construct an argument (e.g., detailed outline, poster, essay) that addresses the compelling question using specific claims and relevant evidence from historical sources while acknowledging competing views.
Extension: Examine the story of emancipation told by a history textbook and propose revisions.

Taking Informed Action

Understand: Watch the film Lincoln.
Assess: Using evidence generated from the inquiry as support, discuss the extent to which the film accurately depicts the end of slavery.
Act: Write a review of the film and post it to www.IMDB.com.