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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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9. Collective Memory of Secession: On Outbreaks and Moral Acts (Gabriel A. Reich, Melanie L. Buffington / William R. Muth)


Gabriel A. Reich, Melanie L. Buffington and William R. Muth

Anyone who grew up with a sibling or is a classroom teacher is familiar with the centrality of assigning blame in a narrative description of a fight. “Who started it?” is the essential question in such disputes. Similarly, history is a moral argument in narrative form (Ahonen, 2018; Rüsen, 2005). Through patterns of selection, omission, significance, and perhaps, most importantly assigning blame for the origins of a historical phenomenon, people communicate a moral argument about who was in the right or wrong. Such arguments can become an article of faith that draws people together, supports a shared identity, and defines who is in and out of a group.

The technical term for such identity affirming narratives is collective memory (others use heritage and myth, e.g., Lowenthal, 1996). Whereas academic historians generally focus on interpretation of sources, and constructing nuanced, accurate, and multi-faceted historical narratives, collective memories present a useable past with narratives that are simple, easily remembered, and emotionally charged (Wertsch, 1998). The narrative tropes and historical content that make up collective memories are resources members of society draw on to explain the world and to mobilize others for political ends (Nordgren, 2016). In this chapter, we describe four collective-memory narratives that have come to define the origins of the Civil War in the collective memories of many Americans. If the ultimate aim of history education is the preparation of democratic citizens, then...

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