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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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7. Why Did the South Secede? Using Inquiry to Confront Contentious History (Carly Muetterties / Ryan A. Lewis)


Carly Muetterties and Ryan A. Lewis

Debate over the prominence of Confederate symbols, monuments, and the overall racial legacy of America’s slavery past, has kept historical interpretation of the Civil War in public discourse. Many communities have subsequently begun to grapple with how the Confederacy and Civil War should be remembered. A Pew Research Poll (2011) found that 48% of respondents believed the main cause of the Civil War was states’ rights, while 38% believed it to be slavery. In a more recent McClatchy-Marist Poll (2015), 53% of respondents believed slavery led to the Civil War, while 41% disagreed. Though presenting different results, both polls illustrate public division on an issue generally agreed upon by scholars. “No matter what we do or the overwhelming consensus among historians,” says David Blight, a prominent Civil War historian, “out in the public mind, there is still this need to deny that slavery was the cause of the war” (quoted in Von Drehle, 2011). Such denial of slavery’s role in Civil War history is perpetuated within and outside the classroom.

Aside from visible public symbols, such as the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate military leaders, a sanitized version of the Civil War and Confederacy also manifests in state curriculum. The ahistorical presentation of content became particularly evident in Texas, when the state adopted revised standards in 2010. Board member Pat Hardy stated slavery’s role in the Civil War was a “side issue” to states’ rights. The Texas...

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