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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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6. Facing Hard History: Confronting the Disconnect in Student Understanding of the Causes of the Civil War (Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz)


Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz

I open with a confession: the 1850s have long been my favorite era to teach. As a preservice teacher I designed my first unit plan on the coming of the Civil War, and I love now as much as I did then tracing the emerging divide over slavery, a division firmly cemented with Lincoln’s election and the onset of war. Change over time, context, causality, contingency, complexity—all the great elements of historical thinking that Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrews (2007) have identified—are present in the study and student exploration of the 1850s. The historical content is rich, and the essential questions are meaningful. How did some white Americans come to believe that slavery—present at the foundational moments of British North America—was a sin that needed stamping out? How did free and enslaved African Americans alike fight to end the institution and achieve personal freedom? How and why did white Southerners, slaveholder and non-slaveholder alike, become more committed than ever to defending the “peculiar institution”—ultimately by moving to dissolve the Union?

Students in the American history survey course apply historical thinking skills, examining change-over-time, continuity, and cause and effect as they answer these questions, carefully tracing how pivotal events such as the Mexican-American War, the introduction of the Wilmot Proviso, and the mayhem induced by the introduction of popular sovereignty in territorial Kansas led to sectional polarization over the future of slavery in the nation. Students dissect newspaper...

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