Abolitionist Broadside from Milwaukee, 1854 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Abolitionist Broadside from Milwaukee, 1854

Abolitionist Broadside from Milwaukee, 1854 | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargePoster advertising Anti-Slave Catchers' Convention

Anti-Slave Catchers' Mass Convention Poster. Milwaukee, Wisconsin View the original source document: WHI 1928

Grade level: Secondary

Duration: One class period

At first glance, today's visually savvy students may consider a broadside just another text-based document. Yet a thoughtful, methodical evaluation of a broadside can demonstrate how a low-cost and low-tech medium could influence people. In this lesson, students will take a closer look at an 1854 broadside from Milwaukee to learn more about the medium as well as Wisconsin's response to the Fugitive Slave Law.


Students will:

  • Analyze a primary source document
  • Learn about the Fugitive Slave Law and abolitionists in Wisconsin
  • Understand the impact of media on a historical event


In the 1850s abolitionists from southeastern Wisconsin directly challenged the controversial Fugitive Slave Act. This broadside from the Wisconsin Historical Society's collections offers valuable insights into the views of Wisconsin's abolitionists. Abolitionists distributed the document in Milwaukee only three weeks after the dramatic capture and rescue of Joshua Glover, an escaped slave from Missouri.

Like television commercials in our time, broadsides were usually produced for some passing commercial or political purpose. Unfortunately both for researchers seeking valuable documentation and for teachers desiring visual materials for students, earlier generations rarely saved broadsides for research libraries and archives.

Due to the technological limitations of print shops in western America, broadsides remained a standard form of communication in the 1850s. Unlike their rapidly maturing offspring, posters, broadsides had limited artwork and color. The basis of an effective broadside was powerful and persuasive text. Designers had to catch the attention of potential readers with large print and then convince them to act with a brief text.

Resource Materials


Direct the students to read the sources silently. Then explain to the class that broadsides were often read aloud in public. Request that one or two students with a flare for drama read the document to the class. Then consider the following questions:

  • Who created this document?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • To whom is the document addressed?

Discussion Questions

The following questions can be adapted for classroom discussion or used as part of a written assignment. For discussion purposes, consider making an overhead transparency of the broadside. Each student should receive a photocopy of the document.

  1. How does the information in the document connect with the historical context of the mid-1850s?
  2. Ask students to identify the central argument made in the text.
  3. Specifically, identify two points the author makes to support this argument.
  4. How does the author refer to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850?
  5. What political party do you think the author of the document supported? Explain.
  6. Direct students to study the design and layout of the document. Visually, what words and phrases are emphasized?


  1. Broadsides like this document served to inform and to persuade people in an age before mass-circulation newspapers. Using the COVID19 Big History Poster Project for examples, direct students to design a broadside about a contemporary injustice or social issue. See if they can find evidence of "broadsides" today in the form of bumper stickers, T-shirts, billboards, etc. Encourage students to include all the elements that make up a broadside, including a logical written argument, patriotic slogans, religious references, and visual design.


  • Free soil
  • State sovereignty
  • Writ of habeas corpus
  • Right of trial by jury


A version of this lesson plan was developed by the Office of School Services for the secondary-level classroom. Please adapt it to fit your students' needs.