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Classroom SimulationClassroom Simulation

Compromise Between the North and South

Contributing teacher: Bruce Baskind
Time period: 1860

A simulation engages your students with history in a powerful, personal, intellectual, and emotional way. Your students will take on the roles of historical characters headed for a crisis, who are asked to make perhaps the most important decisions of their lives. We search through history to find these special moments, the ones filled with drama, tension, and crisis, not only because they are the most interesting, but because in moments such as these, history most fully reveals itself. Just as we probably learn more about ourselves through times of crisis than during the ordinary, humdrum days of existence, so too with history. And if we learn more about ourselves through crisis, so will our students learn about their roles and themselves through this simulation.

Abraham Lincoln (1809–65)was elected president of the United States in November 1860. Almost immediately, the nation was thrown into a secession crisis, in which the states of the South considered leaving the Union. South Carolina was the first state to secede, on December 20, 1860. By February 1861, the six other states of the Deep South—Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia—followed suit, forming the Confederate States of America. There were a number of attempts at compromise in November and December 1860, the most credible and elaborate designed by John J. Crittenden (1787–1863), a moderate senator from Kentucky (a slave state that never seceded).

Crittenden's compromise proposal called for a series of six constitutional amendments, including the extension of the old Missouri Compromise line (36° 30') west to the Pacific, thus allowing the expansion of slavery to future states south of the line; the protection of slavery in the District of Columbia and on federal land in slaveholding states; the payment of restitution to any slave owner whose slave ran away to the free states; and a guarantee that none of these amendments, nor the three-fifths and fugitive-slave clauses of the Constitution, could ever be repealed by future amendments. As we know, Crittenden's attempt at compromise failed and the Civil War ensued. In this simulation, your students will experience the failure of this compromise and learn more about the causes of the Civil War and Professor Eric Foner's interpretation of them.

Professor Foner argues in his e-seminars for an interpretation that puts the issue of the expansion of slavery at the heart of the secession crisis. The Crittenden proposal is evidence of exactly that. Crittenden understood that the South was unlikely to forgo secession for anything that disallowed the expansion of slavery. The problem, of course, was that dominant opinion in the North opposed this expansion, even though most Northerners were probably also opposed to immediate abolition. Examining the Crittenden proposal takes us to that brief, precious moment before secession, with the nation on the brink of disunion, when the one issue on which the South and North could not compromise was the expansion of slavery.

The Assignment
In this simulation, your students will attend the Crittenden Compromise Convention and play the roles of important historical figures. The students will attempt to do what could not be done in late 1860 and early 1861: create a compromise between the South and North that would prevent secession and civil war. Whether the students reach a compromise or not, by engaging the key issues in a powerful way, they will achieve a better understanding of why the North and South failed. The real goal of the simulation is to have the students engage intellectually with the issues on which union hinged.

The simulation takes place over two consecutive days in your classroom, when your students arrive in their roles, each ready to discuss his or her character's views on the Crittenden proposal. These roles were selected not only in an attempt to portray the viewpoints that really mattered in the defeat of Crittenden's proposal, but also with a sense of conflict and drama. It is no small matter to have escaped slaves Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913) and Frederick Douglass (1817–95) in the same room with states' rights leader John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) and the fictional characters Scarlett O'Hara and Ashley Wilkes. And if a student points out that Calhoun had died in 1850 or that Gone With the Wind did not appear in bookstores or on the screen until the 1930s, compliment them but let them know that this is all about having meaningful fun with history. During these two days, your students will explain their position on the Crittenden proposal, try to find other avenues for compromise, and either succeed or end up at war as the North and South did.


1. A sign that says: "Welcome to Crittenden Convention, December 1, 1860."

2. A role package for each student. It should include the name of the role, the readings for that role, and the first writing assignment (see Setting Up the Simulation below).

3. One envelope for each student, with the name of the role written on the front. The envelope will contain a letter, addressing each student in character and inviting him or her to the convention, and a writing assignment (included at the end of the simulation).

4. Opening speech to the convention (included at the end of the simulation).

Historical Characters
There are 17 roles included here (10 historical or fictitious actors and 7 members of the nonbinding arbitration board). If your class size demands more parts, double or treble the historical actors. Feel free to add or change parts. For more readings, see the DBQs.

John J. Crittenden
You can read a short biography of John Crittenden, from The Civil War.

John C. Calhoun
You can read a short biography of John Calhoun, from The Civil War.

Salmon P. Chase (1808–73)
Foner, Eric. "Salmon P. Chase: The Constitution and the Slave Power." In Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Jefferson Davis (1808–89)
Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Stephen A. Douglas (1813–61)
Johnson, Allen, and Dumas Malone, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930.

Garraty, John A., and Mark Carnes, eds. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Frederick Douglass
Garraty, John A., and Mark Carnes, eds. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

You can find the text of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass at the Berkeley Digital Library SunSITE Web site.

George Fitzhugh (1806–81)
Hofstadter, Richard. "John C. Calhoun: The Marx of the Master Class." In The American Political Tradition. New York: Vintage, 1989, originally 1948.

Abraham Lincoln
Hofstadter, Richard. "Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth." In The American Political Tradition. New York: Vintage, 1989, originally 1948.

Scarlett O'Hara, Ashley Wilkes (fictitious)
Gone With the Wind (1939)

Harriet Tubman
You can read an excerpt from John C. Calhoun's speech to the Senate, March 4, 1850.

Members of the Nonbinding Arbitration Board (Seven)
This six-member panel will listen to all sides and attempt to create a compromise. They may bring their proposals before the convention at any time. The American Social History Project. Chapters 5, 6, 9, and 10 in Who Built America. Vol. 1. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.

Below are guidelines for the simulation. As you read through them, you will get a clearer, more complete idea of how the simulation should work, as well as how it might look when it is executed.

Setting Up The Simulation
1. One or two weeks before the simulation, see to it that each student has a role. This will allow them time to read about and research the role. How should the roles be distributed? A powerful argument can be made that the teacher should carefully assign roles based on each student's needs, abilities, beliefs, and reading ability. For example, a student who is most unsympathetic to the pro-slavery argument might be placed in a pro-slavery role such as Scarlett O'Hara or George Fitzhugh. This would challenge the student to come to grips with a belief system that he or she might otherwise ignore. It might also cause the student to reexamine his or her own ideology when confronted by powerful arguments in favor of slavery. If you find this method a bit daunting, you might consider random distribution or simply allowing students to select their roles. Personally, I've tried every method under the sun, from random distribution, to letting the students take any part they wanted, to carefully matching a student to a part, and I cannot say that I have a preference, though the results are always interesting.

2. The first writing assignment should be due several days before the simulation begins. I suggest a brief, two-page paper in which they write a basic biography, a list of the character's most important accomplishments, and a sense of the beliefs, ideas, and values of the person they will portray.

3. Try to read these papers before the simulation. You might want to respond to the papers, perhaps in a class discussion in which you help students to take their papers up a notch.

The Day Before the Simulation Starts
1. Give each student a sealed envelope with the name of the role he or she is playing written conspicuously on it (unless the role is chosen in another way). Place a letter inside (included below) that states Crittenden's proposal for compromise and an invitation to the convention, to be held the next day. The letter will ask the students to decide, in their roles, how they feel about the senator's proposal.

2. The idea here is to get the students ready for a different learning experience. It is much more effective and fun to give them subtle hints that get them into the roles, and to think about what is likely to happen, than to lecture about how they should behave, or what they are going to learn. To this end, ask the students to bring a prop, such as a hat or other article of clothing, that they feel brings something to their part.

Day 1: The Preparation
1. Consider trying to make your room look significantly different. Change the arrangement of the seats, the lighting, the mood, and so on. Try to communicate that this will be a different, perhaps special class and that it obviously matters to you, without having to say so. Definitely put up a sign, inside or outside the class, that announces the convention.

2. Place yourself in a role. Select one that allows you to clarify or explain anything that might get in the way. You might simply introduce yourself as the chair, or as Senator Crittenden himself.

3. As the students come to class, greet them at the door, in your role. You can help them get into their own roles with, for example, any of the following: "Thank you for coming, 'tis grievous, the union could be torn apart," or "What say you of the senator's plan?" or "To the union!" or "Tell me, does the union have a chance?"

4. A message on the board might tell the students that they should get ready for the convention by taking out their notes.

5. When the class has settled down, deliver the opening address (included below), which explains the purpose, basic rules, and hopes of the convention.

6. Begin with an open discussion of the convention's feelings about Crittenden's proposal. Encourage debate. Take a vote on the Crittenden proposal.

7. Encourage actors to suggest avenues for compromise, and ask the arbitration board's members if they have any proposals. Allow the convention to discuss, debate, and vote on each proposal.

8. With five minutes left in the class, ask members of the arbitration board to summarize the major stumbling blocks. They will begin the next day's session with written proposals for compromise.

Day 2: Debate Continues
1. Try to think of new ways of getting the students into their roles. Try new greetings, or a new sign. Consider handing them the arbitration board's proposals for compromise. And definitely enlist two students to serve as messengers, ready to deliver any message you give them, to stoke up drama.

2. You might begin the second and last session with your own personal statement, possibly reminding the convention members of the importance of their work and the consequences if they fail. This should definitely be delivered in the role. Or you might simply begin by having the convention consider the proposals submitted by the arbitration board, or by any member of the convention.

3. If you feel moments where the enthusiasm is waning, send in a messenger to announce something such as "The South Carolina legislature is writing a declaration of secession" or "The states of the Deep South have met to discuss secession; results are due soon." This should focus them on the matter at hand, trying to create a compromise that will stave off secession and prevent the Civil War.

4. You will have some big, spontaneous decisions to make this day. Are the students tiring of the convention, and is it time to stop and debrief? Is it all going so well that you want to push on till the bell, and debrief the following day? There will be plenty of difficult and important decisions for you to make, and this is what makes this pedagogy so exciting. By the way, be careful. If you are doing the simulation in your other American history classes, you can count on very different things happening in each.

Day 2: The Debriefing
1. It is a good idea to debrief in some fashion. Your students have experienced a great deal, and you want to encourage them to make sense of all the issues.

2. There are countless ways to do this. You have been through the process along with your students, and you probably have some excellent thoughts about how you would like to see the simulation gain closure. Trust yourself. However, here are two ideas:

a) Have a discussion in class with the students in their roles. Ask them to discuss their experiences in the convention—their best moments or their worst. What went wrong, what went right, and why did they succeed or fail?

b) Have a similar discussion with them in class without having them in their roles. Or place them each in a different role, perhaps as historians who read the transcript of the convention.

3. However you choose to debrief, you should ask your students to write something substantial about what they learned. Again, there are many ways to do this. Trust yourself if you think you have a great idea. Still, here are a few suggestions:

a) Have the students write a memoir, in role, in which they discuss the experience. Ask them to consider who or what was the stumbling block, and who was most flexible? They might conclude the memoir with a statement about how they think this moment should be remembered.

b) Have the students write an analytical paper in which they address the same questions stated above.

c) Have the students write a contemporary newspaper article about the convention, to be published by a major newspaper.

d) Have the students write an account of the convention to appear in a high-school history textbook.

Letter to Invitees to the Convention
Though our nation now finds itself in the most dire, urgent situation, with the Union on the brink of division, we are convinced that immediate action can be helpful. As one of our most respected Americans, you are in a moral and political position to influence compromise between our two great sections. With the purpose of saving our great Union, would you please attend The Crittenden Compromise Convention tomorrow, during period ___ in room _____?

Below you will find Senator Crittenden's proposal for compromise. Please read it carefully. Would you be so kind as to write a one-page essay in which you state your feelings about the senator's proposal. This paper will be collected, for the historical record. Please include any of your own ideas about how to resolve the differences that exist between the North and South.

Feel free to dress accordingly.

Ms. History Teacher

The Crittenden Proposal for Compromise
It is hereby resolved, that the Congress of the United States shall amend the U.S. Constitution to restore and extend the Missouri Compromise line (the 36°, 30' parallel) to the Pacific Ocean. Any state created north of that line shall be a free state and any state created south of the line to be slave. It is also hereby resolved that Congress shall seek an amendment to the United States Constitution that will prohibit Congress from abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia and on federal land in slaveholding states; and another amendment to require that compensation be paid to the owners of runaway slaves who are detained in the free states by abolitionist sympathizers; and yet another amendment to guarantee that none of these amendments, nor the three-fifths and fugitive slave clauses of the Constitution, are ever repealed by future amendments to the Constitution.

Opening Address to Convention
(You should consider delivering this yourself, in role, perhaps as the chair of the convention.)
Good morning, ladies and gentleman from all across our great Union, thank you for attending today. You know that our dear land is in great peril, as one of our oldest sections considers whether they wish to leave the United States of America. The situation cannot possibly be more difficult. If we cannot find a way for the North and South to compromise, the United States as we know it will be no more.

Needless to say, we are not Congress, nor the Supreme Court. We cannot make law nor interpret it. The reason you have been asked to attend is due to the great respect that your peers have for you, individually and collectively. If we together can create a compromise that satisfies both great sections, it will have tremendous weight morally and politically. While there would be no guarantee, it would be difficult for Congress to ignore us. Besides, we know what will happen if we choose to do nothing.

Allow me just a word about the basic format. The convention will begin with each member being granted the right to speak about Senator Crittenden's proposal. Members may freely respond to any previous speaker. It is crucial that we speak openly about our feelings so that we can figure out where to go. At any time, any member may ask for a vote on a particular suggestion, with the majority having their way. It is our hope that when we are finished, we will have a proposal that will be agreeable to all Americans, a proposal that will demand timely Congressional action. May our Lord smile down upon us and grant us wisdom.

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