Myth Buster: What Caused the Civil War?

More than 150 years after the Civil War, Americans don’t understand what caused this pivotal conflict. You can hear the ignorance in the debates we have about the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll to explore Americans’ beliefs about the war. The results indicated that 48% of Americans believe the southern states seceded because of states’ rights and 38% of people believe the South seceded over slavery. So who’s right?

History isn’t simple, but we like simple answers.

So to put it simply, slavery caused the Civil War. People who argue that the southern states seceded because of states’ rights are only correct in that the right these states wanted to control was the right to own slaves without restriction by the federal government.  You can read the evidence in the Confederate states own words, namely the Ordinances of Succession. 

This is old history, but it matters. Racial tensions plague our nation, and these problems are rooted in America’s past as a slave nation. Peace and justice will not come until we fully understand our history.

So history teachers, the burden is on your shoulders.

Help your students dig into the historical data so they can reach conclusions based on evidence rather than myth. Here is a lesson I used with my high school students.

  • Put students in groups of three and have them read the Ordinances of Succession of the 13 Confederate States of America. It’s best to assign each group one state.
  • As they read, have students list the reasons the state gave for leaving the Union. Categorize these reasons. Possible categories include slavery, states’ rights, economic issues, or concerns about the leadership of President Lincoln.
  • Ask students to visually portray how much they think each category influenced that state to secede. Possible visuals include a pie graph or word cloud or sketch. The visual should balance each category in terms of its importance as indicated in the Ordinance of Succession.
  • The students should share their visual with the whole group, explaining the reasons given for secession by the state whose ordinance they read.
  • After listening to all groups, students should write a thesis that states why the Confederate states seceded from the United States.
  • To extend the lesson, students could conduct their own informal poll at school to determine what teachers and students think caused  the Civil War. Do the poll results conflict with what the students discovered through reading the Ordinances of Succession? If so, how do students explain this discrepancy?