Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Constitution: 1845

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The Frederick Douglass game introduces students to a time and place almost unimaginable today, when advocating an end to slavery was far more controversial than supporting its perpetuation: the United States in 1845.   Class debates focus on the intellectual and cultural clashes between the “Defenders of the Constitution”—the entrenched, respectable defenders of American slavery—and the Abolitionists—a small but dedicated movement calling for slavery’s immediate and universal abolition. Many characters are independent of both factions.

The question facing the country in 1845 was not a civil war—which was then unimaginable—but whether abolitionist critics of slavery were legitimate. Can the abolitionists be suppressed outright? The many violent anti-abolitionist mobs in the North showed that this was hardly just a “southern” demand. Thus, in the first part of the game, all characters “review” the newly published “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself” at a literary forum hosted by the illustrious English author Charles Dickens in New York.  (This forum brings together a range of people whose ideas and interests, while actually engaged with one another, never actually meet face to face.)  Later, characters address the U.S. Constitution and its clear protection of slaveholders’ power, such as its assertion that fugitive slaves must be returned. Are Americans accountable to the Constitution or to a “higher law”?

The Defenders of the Constitution faction includes John C. Calhoun; the Auld family of Maryland (who legally own the fugitive slave Douglass); Henry Clay; a Virginia planter devoted to Thomas Jefferson’s teachings; and the inventor of the telegraph.  Abolitionists include Frederick Douglass; William Lloyd Garrison; the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet; Sojourner Truth; and the Grimke sisters, who scandalously spoke in public to “mixed” (male and female) audiences, which was previously unknown in America.   Indeterminate characters include Edgar Poe; Horace Greeley;, Daniel Webster; John Quincy Adams; Fanny Kemble; a slave woman; a whiskey dealer; and other ambitious Americans.

About the Authors:

Mark D. Higbee teaches African American and U.S. history at Eastern Michigan University. His Ph.D. is from Columbia University. Professor Higbee has been involved with the RTTP pedagogy since 2006 and currently serves on the board of the Reacting Consortium.  His RTTP class for first-year students was featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education ("In Improving Higher Education, Which Core Matters More: Skills or Curriculum?", September 30, 2011). He has also published a study on student engagement and RTTP ("How Reacting to the Past Games ‘Made Me Want to Come to Class and Learn’: An Assessment of the Reacting Pedagogy at EMU, 2007-2008").

James Brewer Stewart (co-author) is the James Wallace Professor of History Emeritus at Macalester College.  He is the author or editor of a dozen books on the history of Abolitionism, including the widely read Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery and biographies of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Stewart is also the founder of the contemporary Abolitionist organization, Historians Against Slavery, which works to end all slavery in the world today.