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Teaching the Causes of the American Civil War, 1850-1861


Edited By Michael E. Karpyn

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, killing nearly 700,000 Americans and costing the country untold millions of dollars. The events of this tragic war are so steeped in the collective memory of the United States and so taken for granted that it is sometimes difficult to take a step back and consider why such a tragic war occurred. To consider the series of events that led to this war are difficult and painful for students and teachers in American history classrooms. Classroom teachers must possess the appropriate pedagogical and historical resources to provide their students with an appropriate and meaningful examination of this challenging time period. Teaching the Causes of the American Civil War, 18501861 will attempt to provide these resources and teaching strategies to allow for the thoughtful inquiry, evaluation and assessment of this critical, complex and painful time period in American history.

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5. 1860: The Election That Started the War (Elizabeth Barrow)


Elizabeth Barrow

Other chapters in this book have spoken to the long-term causes of the Civil War—the tension following the Compromise of 1850, Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott case, and John Brown’s raid. The goal of this chapter is to challenge misconceptions regarding the election of 1860 and complicate the discussion of how this election contributed to a temporary separation of the Union. Race figured prominently in public discourse and political maneuvering by candidates in 1860. Calls for protection of states’ rights were really calls to protect the institution of slavery and maintain white superiority (Huston, 2003) while calls to keep the Union together were seen as a threat to the Southern livelihood. This chapter will: (1) challenge the inevitability of Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate; (2) focus on what the four candidates reveal about the complexity of the election; and (3) challenge misconceptions about the role race and slavery played in the election. The chapter concludes by offering some lesson ideas connected to the C3 Framework and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) themes (National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), 2013).

Teaching about the election of 1860 and the causes of the Civil War can be especially difficult in the South where remnants of the Civil War remain visible. Confederate statues still stand guard on town squares and college campuses. Confederate battle flags (the Saint Andrews Cross) still fly in the yards of private residences, on the side of...

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