Teaching With Documents Lesson Plan:
Anti-railroad Propaganda Poster -- The Growth of Regionalism, 1800 - 1860

Teaching Activities

Standards Correlations

This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.

  • Era 4 -Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
    • Standard 2A -Demonstrate understanding of how the factory system and the transportation and market revolutions shaped regional patterns of economic development.

This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.

  • Standard III.C.1. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the proper relationship between the national government and the state and local governments.
  • Standard III.E.2. -Evaluate, take, and defend positions about the role of public opinion in American politics.

Constitutional Connection

This lesson relates to the struggle to define the powers of the national and state governments. It can be examined along with Article I, Section 8, on the powers of Congress and Article IV on states' rights.

Cross-curricular Connections

Please share this exercise with your history, government, and art colleagues.

Analyzing the Document


1. Ask students to make a list of the different modes and methods of transportation that they use. Ask them why people use transportation and why transportation is important. From their lists, instruct students to identify which modes of transportation were used in the 1800s. Utilizing various maps of our country during this time period, instruct students to determine the different modes of transportation used in the different regions and to account for the differences.

Document Analysis

2. Direct students to read the section in their text related to transportation developments of the 1830s and 40s and then complete a Poster Analysis Worksheet for the document provided. Lead a class discussion about the poster using the questions from the analysis sheet and some others, like the following: Does the point of view of the poster surprise you? According to the poster, who was in favor of the railroad? Compare the point of view of the poster with what you've read in your text books. What does the comparison reveal about the differences that sometimes exist between community, regional, and national goals?

Research and Discussion

3. Discuss the meaning of propaganda with the students. Ask them if the poster could be considered propaganda. Help the students to identify current forms of propaganda in their everyday lives. Ask them to identify a local issue that aroused intense interest in the community. Examples might include preserving land, locating an incinerator, building a road, or moving a school. Using newspaper articles and editorials, students should research this issue, discuss it with their parents, interview people involved in the development, and then form their own opinions about the project. Instruct students to take a stand for or against the project and create a piece of propaganda to rally support for their viewpoints. Lead a class discussion on the responsibility of citizens to participate in their government. Tie the discussion back to the original document by using the following questions: What if the authors of the poster had been successful in preventing the railroad? How would this have changed regional development? In the 1830s, how did the interests of the poster's creators compare with those of their region and those of the nation? Today, how do your interests (as reflected in the student-created propaganda) compare with those of your region and those of the nation?

Geography Exercise

4. Distribute blank maps of the New York--Philadelphia metropolitan area and ask students to label the cities and modes of transportation that are mentioned in the poster. Ask students why they think this area was a target area for growth. Discuss with them the geographic, economic, and political factors that contribute to growth. Instruct students working in small groups to identify other megacities in the United States and account for their growth. Groups will also predict where the next megalopolis will be and why. (You may want to use different types of maps--political, physical, present, an 1850/1860s map, 1900 map, etc.)

Role Play

5. Instruct students to brainstorm a list of reasons for and against building the railroad in Philadelphia in the 1830s. Assign students roles in this debate and create a reenactment of a 1839 town meeting in Philadelphia. (Costumes, props, and all!) Possible student roles: mothers, business leaders, local government officials, unemployed workers, etc.

Research and Application

6. Explain to the students that sectionalism influenced important legislation during the mid-1800s. Remind students about the various reactions to the War of 1812. Divide students into three groups representing the North, South, and West. Instruct each group to use various sources to research the population, factories, miles of railroads, canals, roads, and raw materials in their section during the period 1830-1860. (An excellent resource is Historical Statistics of the United States , published by the Bureau of the Census.) Ask each group to compile their information on a wall chart. Lead a class discussion comparing and contrasting the three regions. Assign students to various pieces of legislation passed in the period 1830-1860 (Missouri Compromise, Pacific Railroad Act, Kansas-Nebraska Act, etc.) Instruct them to write an essay explaining how sectionalism influenced their particular legislation. Instead of an essay, another option would be to assign students a role of a person from a region and ask them to write a position paper or editorial on one or more of the pieces of legislation.

Predicting Outcomes

7. Instruct students to research current legislation related to transportation by searching the Senate Web site and the House of Representatives Web site. Ask them to determine how that legislation might affect the region in which they live. Ask them to draw an image of daily life in their own region in the present and another one for the year 2025, assuming the passage of the legislation.

The document included in this project is from Record Group 30, Records of the Bureau of Public Roads. It is available online through the Online Catalog (OPA) National Archives Identifier:


The Online Catalog (OPA) replaces its prototypes, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) and NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). You can still perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.

The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the online catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.

Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the online catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the online catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the online catalog will grow continually.

This article was written by Kerry C. Kelly, a teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, NJ.


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