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Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and the Constitution, 1845

by Mark Higbee and James Brewer Stewart

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”?



Cultural and Social History, World History, African American History, History of Whites and Racism, American History; US Constitutional History

19th Century; Late Modern Period

In a Few Words
Equality versus enslavement

North America

Themes and Issues  

Class, Gender, Race

Player Interactions 
Factional, Non-factional, Competitive, Collaborative, Coalition-Building

Sample Class Titles
U.S. History Survey; Enslavement versus Equality; World History since 1500

Published Level 5 game (what's that mean?)

Rolling Dice, Formal Podium Rule

Chaos and Demand on Instructor 
This game is structured and is not highly demanding for the instructor. However, the game is simple in terms of mechanics, but it is about the biggest problem in all of American history.

Primary Source Highlights 
"Narrative of Frederick Douglass" (1845); the Constitution

Notable Roles

Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, John C. Calhoun

Using the Game

Class Time  
For this game, 2 to 4 setup sessions and 7 to 9 game sessions are recommended; the game requires more time for a class with more students and less time with fewer students.

Possible Reacting Game Pairings
This game can be used on its own, or with other games. These pairings are meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive or prescriptive. Frederick Douglass may pair well with:

You can adjust the assignments based on the desired learning outcomes of your class. This game can include: speeches, broadsides, and journalism. Not all roles are required to give formal speeches.

Class Size and Scalability
This game is recommended for classes with 11-75 students. 


Reacting Consortium members can access all downloadable materials (including expanded and updated materials) below. You will be asked to sign in before downloading.  Basic game materials (Gamebook, Role Sheets, Instructor's Guide, and Handouts) are available to any instructor through the publisher. 


Students need a Gamebook, which includes directions, resources, and historical content. The Frederick Douglass Gamebook is published by W. W. Norton. 

 ISBN: 978-0-393-68063-8
 Available wherever books are sold.

Role Sheets

Students also need a Role Sheet, which contains biographical information, role-specific resources or assignments, and their character's secret victory objectives. 

.zip file of .pdf files.

Instructor's Guide and Handouts

The Instructor's Guide includes guidance for assigning roles, presenting historical context, assignments, activities and discussion topics, and more.  

.pdf file.

.zip file of .pdf files.


Mark Higbee

Mark Higbee is a Professor of History and Philosophy at Eastern Michigan University.

Reacting and Related Titles

James Brewer Stewart

James Brewer Stewart (Emeriti Faculty at Macalester College) taught about the Western Hemisphere and the United States prior to the 20th century, emphasizing the topics of race, politics, law and social movements. He also has an interest in comparative indigenous civilizations, processes of conquest and labor systems in the U.S, the Caribbean and Latin America. His books and articles address the abolitionist movement in the U.S. and the politics of the conflict over slavery and the struggles for racial justice. In 2008 he completed a half-time appointment as James Wallace Professor of History, devoted largely to research, writing, editing and consulting for foundations.


"This game has many strengths: the variety and quality of resources, the suggestions for players on their role sheets for further reading, and the charts on each role sheet clearly outlining game assignments and expectations for each player."

"This is one of the few games that tackle the difficult questions of race, slavery, and American attitudes in antebellum United States. By centering the game around debate and counterfactual situations of the men and women, white and black, northern, southern, and international in a room to debate ideas helps students more concretely understand why slavery and racism both persisted and could coexist with American democratic notions of freedom, citizenship, and identity as defined by the Constitution."

"Every RTTP game has a distinct personality, and I particularly like the personality of this game. I like things like The Lottery of Bad Luck, Extraordinary Game Actions, Money, and the plots that may or may not be floating around. My Daniel Webster sewed a flag, by hand, during class, so that he could raise the flag. This personality is fun, but it also performs a significant function. This game talks about serious issues which the United States is still not past."


Members can contact game authors directly

We invite instructors join our Facebook Faculty Lounge, where you'll find a wonderful community eager to help and answer questions. We also encourage you to submit your question for the forthcoming FAQ, and to check out our upcoming events


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