Most students have some sense of the Civil War—they know that by 1860 slavery divided the nation and that most Northerners who fought did so to preserve the Union. Our objective here, however, is to track these issues deeper into America’s past. By the end of their reading, students should recognize that the war that broke out in 1861 had a “long fuse” stretching back to the beginnings of the nation, and that policy makers waged a long and ultimately unsuccessful fight to contain the fundamental differences between North and South.
You might therefore focus this unit by asking your students if civil war was inevitable—could conflict between North and South have been avoided? If so, where did policy makers take a wrong turn? At the Constitutional Convention? In 1820? 1850? Was the critical factor making war inevitable political—or was it something else, for example, economic or technological? When exactly did compromise become impossible? And if war was inevitable, would the “United” States have been better off as two nations from the start?