Grade, Dual Enrollment us history, 90 minutes

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Causes of the Civil War

11th Grade, Dual Enrollment US History, 90 minutes

Context: Historians today still argue over the causes of the Civil War. The uncertainty about the causes makes it a key topic to discuss in a Socratic Seminar format. Evidence from primary documents of the time reveals multiple layers of the reasons for both Southern secession and Northern involvement in entering the war. Secession declarations and Southern newspapers both show a sense of anger toward the North for its views of the South, especially in regard to slavery. The many compromises preceding the Civil War also draw attention to the issue of state’s rights and state sovereignty, which the South felt was in jeopardy if in the hands of a Northern dominated government. The South reacted on long-held emotions about these two issues following the election of Abraham Lincoln, who was viewed as a politician hostile toward slavery. Lincoln’s goal was to hold the union together, with national law supreme over the laws of the states. The South, however, believed the states freely created the union and had the freedom to leave it if they saw fit.

The Socratic Seminar is a student-led dialogue facilitated with open-ended questions about a text. It allows students the opportunity to question and examine different issues and principles in a text and helps them achieve a greater understanding about those ideas as they discuss with their classmates. Different points-of-view are offered during the seminar and the class works through different means of analysis and interpretation while they develop their listening and participation skills. The causes of the Civil War are still debated today and wide consensus has not been reached. The Socratic Seminar is an appropriate method to use for this lesson because it will force students to analyze and interpret primary documents surrounding the South’s secession and subsequent Northern sentiments and reactions. The issue is a sensitive one but the 11th grade class has been learning about other controversial issues this year and is ready to tackle the Civil War now.


Academic: By the end of the lesson, students will be able to…

  1. Demonstrate knowledge of the causes, major events, and effects of the Civil War by explaining how the issue of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions. (SOL Standard USI.9b).

  2. List two causes of the Civil War.

  3. Discuss Northern and Southern viewpoints leading up to the Civil War.

  4. Examine primary documents from persons in the Civil War.

  5. Discriminate between the North’s goal to preserve the Union and the South’s push for state’s right’s and slavery through secession.

  6. Explain the complex factors leading up to the Civil War.


  1. Students will practice analysis and interpretation of primary documents.

  2. Students will enhance listening and participation skills.


  1. Students will have contributed to the discussion at least two times, using the primary documents for evidence.

  2. Students will discuss each of the major factors leading up to the Civil War.

  3. Students will write one paragraph describing what they thought led to the Civil War.

Content and Instructional Strategies: The documents that the students will have read for homework before the lesson cover both Northern and Southern viewpoints. The texts are remarkably important for the students to read, especially given the divided historical views on the issue. Enabling the students to read the actual documents surrounding the Civil War, rather than contemporary reflections on the past, will give them the opportunity to uncover greater insight on the topic. The South was entrenched in slavery and relied on it for both political and economic capital. They viewed the Northern election of Lincoln as the final straw in a long-string of governmental actions against their peculiar institution. Citing such frustrations in regard to slavery, the Southern secession documents used for this Seminar argue for state’s right’s and a preservation of the Constitution that the freely signed as members of the United States. The North believed that secession was against the Constitution and sought at all costs to preserve the Union. The texts used for the seminar reflect these values and will challenge the students to look into the historical events leading up to the Civil War, the geographical significance of each of the states, and the arguments during secession for or against a divided country.

Opening Questions:

  • What caused the Civil War?

  • What were the arguments for Southern secession?

  • What were the Northern arguments for keeping the Union together?

  • Given the historical context of the time, how were these arguments valid?

Core Questions:

  • What were the differences between the different Southern states?

  • What was the foundation of Confederacy?

  • What were Northern opinions of slavery? Federalism?

Potential Follow-Up Questions:

  • Was there a difference between the attitudes of the Upper South and Lower South?

  • How are the secession documents similar or different to the United States’ Declaration of Independence?

Preparation for Seminar: The students will need to read over the primary documents for homework the night before the seminar. While reading, they should mark different passages that stand out to them as significant and take notes on similarities and differences between the documents.

Room Arrangement: The class will move their desks to form a circle, with the teacher also sitting in the circle. This arrangement allows for maximum equality in terms of participation and encourages a free-flowing discussion among the students.

Preparation for Seminar: The seminar will begin with the teacher announcing the purpose of the lesson. It is to facilitate a deeper understanding of the ideas and values of the country during the Civil War through shared discussion by the class. The teacher will model the appropriate discussion skills for the seminar. Students are to use the primary documents when they make their contributions to the discussion, continually using evidence rather than merely their own personal opinions. Students are not to attack the different interpretations of their peers, but rather go back to the text to make a contribution. The teacher will record who participates and each student is to speak at least twice during the seminar. The teacher will also take notes on what is being said to assess the class’ understanding. Students are encouraged to take their own notes to increase their own retention of the material.

Procedures for the seminar: During the seminar, the students are to listen carefully to the comments of their peers. They are to address the entire group when speaking and do not need to raise their hands in order to contribute. The teacher will pose the opening question “What caused the Civil War?” and then ask participants to answer the question, relating their statements to the text. The frontloading in preparation will set the class up to discuss the issue and what the parameters are for the discussion. If the conversation goes off topic, the teacher will interrupt to refocus the discussion. If the conversation dies down, the teacher should refer to the listed questions and use them to further the discussion.

Post-Seminar and Debrief: After the seminar, the teacher will ask the class what the most important parts of the discussion were. The teacher will then synthesize the arguments made by different sources and point out important contributions made my different members of the class. The teacher will then assign a one-paragraph write-up for the students to answer the question: “What caused the Civil War? Cite evidence from both the North and the South to defend your position.” These will be turned in to the teacher to be graded.

Resources: The Socratic Seminar requires very little materials. Each student will have needed the text packet to read for homework the night before and should have it in front of them during the seminar to use as a reference. Each student will also need their own sheet of paper to write up their final paragraph.

Differentiation: The primary documents represent a difficult challenge for the higher-level students to read and synthesize. For lower-level students, the teacher will provide an appendix for the difficult words and a synthesis of each of the documents preceding the actual text. Students that don’t feel they have a firm grasp of the material will have the opportunity to meet with the teacher the morning of the class to discuss their questions and synthesize the different information.

Adaptations: There are no students in this class with IEP’s or 504 plans. If a student has a difficult time writing they could talk to the teacher about their position on what caused the Civil War instead of writing up the assessment paragraph.

Reflection: This class is a mature one that should be prepared to actively participate in the Socratic Seminar. In the event that students are not participating I will enter into the conversation and ask them what they think about the question or if they would like to comment on what another student had said. If some students are dominating the discussion I will intervene and ask them to save their response so other students can participate. If the class gets too far off track I will re-state the question to refocus the discussion. In the event that they have discussed the main question thoroughly I will refer to the follow-up questions that have already been created to get the conversation back on track.


Abraham Lincoln

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without yourselves the aggressor. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it.”

Alexander Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Alexander Stephens after the Civil War

The contest, so commenced, which ended in the War, was, indeed, a contest between opposing principles; but not such as bore upon the policy or impolicy of African Subordination. They were principles deeply underlying all considerations of that sort. They involved the very nature and organic Structure of the Government itself. The conflict, on this question of Slavery, in the Federal Councils, from the beginning, was not a contest between the advocates or opponents of that peculiar Institution, but a contest, as stated before, between the supporters of a strictly Federative Government, on the one side, and a thoroughly National one, on the other.

Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Horace Greeley

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Henry Winter Davis, of Maryland, Rejects Disunion

Mr. Speaker, we are driven to one of two alternatives. We must recognize what we have been told more than once upon this floor is an accomplished fact-the independence of the rebellious states- or we must refuse to acknowledge it, and accept all the responsibilities that attach to that refusal.

Recognize them!...pull down the flag of the United States and take a lower station among the nations of the earth; abandon the high prerogative of leading the march of freedom, the hope of struggling nationalities, the terror of frowning tyrants, the boast of the world, the light of liberty- to become the sport and prey of despots whose thrones we consolidate by our fall- to be greeted by Mexico with the salutation: “Art thou also become weak as we? Art though become like unto us?” This is recognition.

The Virginia Secession Ordinance


The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

Now, therefore, we, the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain that the ordinance adopted by the people of this State in Convention, on the twenty-fifth day of June, eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and all acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying or adopting amendments to said Constitution, are hereby repealed and abrogated; that the Union between the State of Virginia and the other States under the Constitution aforesaid, is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Virginia is in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State. And they do further declare that the said Constitution of the United States of America is no longer binding on any of the citizens of this State.

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union


In the momentous step, which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery - the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

The hostility to this institution commenced before the adoption of the Constitution, and was manifested in the well-known Ordinance of 1787, in regard to the Northwestern Territory.

The feeling increased, until, in 1819-20, it deprived the South of more than half the vast territory acquired from France.

The same hostility dismembered Texas and seized upon all the territory acquired from Mexico.

It has grown until it denies the right of property in slaves, and refuses protection to that right on the high seas, in the Territories, and wherever the government of the United States had jurisdiction.

It refuses the admission of new slave States into the Union, and seeks to extinguish it by confining it within its present limits, denying the power of expansion.

It tramples the original equality of the South under foot.

It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact, which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.

It advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.

It has enlisted its press, its pulpit and its schools against us, until the whole popular mind of the North is excited and inflamed with prejudice.

It has made combinations and formed associations to carry out its schemes of emancipation in the States and wherever else slavery exists.

It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.

It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives.

It has broken every compact into which it has entered for our security.

It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system.

It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause.

It has recently obtained control of the Government, by the prosecution of its unhallowed schemes, and destroyed the last expectation of living together in friendship and brotherhood.

Utter subjugation awaits us in the Union, if we should consent longer to remain in it. It is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property. For far less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.

South Carolina’s Secession Declaration
Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely: the right of a State to govern itself, and the right of a people to abolish a Government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted. And concurrent with the establishment of these principles, was the fact, that each Colony became and was recognized by the mother Country a FREE, SOVEREIGN, AND INDEPENDENT STATE.

Beschloss, M. & Sidey, H. (2009) Abraham Lincoln. White House Historical Association. Retrieved from

Cleveland, H. (1861). Alexander H. Stephens. Philadelphia and Chicago: National Publishing Company.

Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 2nd session (February 7, 1861), Appendix, p. 182.

Lincoln, A. (1862). Thurlow Weed to Abraham Lincoln, August 24 [1862] (Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley). Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Retrieved from

Stephens, A. H. (1870). A constitutional view of the late war between the states. Philadelphia: National Publishing Company.

The declaration of causes of seceding states. Civil War Trust. Retrieved from

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