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1850s America: A Precursor to the American Civil War

Lesson Plans by Richard Cleggett

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1850s America Lesson Plans

Student Activities for 1850s America Include:

The 1850s were a troubled period in American history, filled with internal strife. Geographic and political divides were widening, and attempts to resolve these differences in a peaceful manner seemed doomed to failure. The events of this decade set the stage for the terrible conflict of the American Civil War.


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1850s America Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

North and South Comparison

Growing Tensions Between the North and the South
Growing Tensions Between the North and the South

Example

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For this activity, have students use a T-Chart to compare and contrast the differences between the Northern states and Southern states. This chart will incorporate various facets of life, including economics, production, social life, and everyday activities. Students will first depict life in the North, detailing the industrious activity that defined the Northern economy. Students will detail daily life, including viewpoints on the morality and constitutionality of slavery as an institution. The second part of the T-Chart will do the same for the South, its economy, and daily life there.



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5 Ws Activity: Who What Where When Why

The Compromise of 1850 5 Ws
The Compromise of 1850 5 Ws

Example

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Using a spider map, have students detail the components of the Compromise of 1850. They should include who proposed it, how it was received socially and politically, and incorporate the separate laws that made up the Compromise. Students should include the debate over passing the Compromise, and how it aimed to solve the question of slavery and its place in (or out of) the new territories.

The students will use the 5 Whys:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?


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Aims of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and How it Worsened Sectional Tensions

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Example

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For this activity, students will detail the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, along with the events that followed from it. Students will use a Frayer Model graphic organizer to help centralize the aim of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the effects and events that resulted from it. Students should include events such as Bleeding Kansas, The Dred Scott decision, popular sovereignty in action, and the Lecompton Constitution. Students may also include John Brown and the Pottawattamie Massacre, and how it exemplified the violence and tensions between pro-slavers and free-soilers aiming for control of the area.


The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Aims and Compromises

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, supported by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, was proposed to bring the Nebraska territory under control. Northern interests sought the territory for a transcontinental railroad, while the South wanted to expand slave territory.


Supporters / Opposers

The Kansas-Nebraska Act immediately created political divides and rifts. With support of the bill coming from Douglas, a prominent member of the Whig Party, a divide quickly occurred between Northern and Southern Whigs. Northern Whig opposers soon joined the newly formed Republican Party while Southerners found loyalties with the Democrats.


Bloody Kansas

'Bloody Kansas' refers to the violence resulting from immediate attempts to settle the Kansas-Nebraska territory by both Pro-slavers and Free-soilers. By settling the area, each group aimed to influence the law of the land as to whether each state would enter the Union as free or slave. This majority choice of the people is known as popular sovereignty.


Pottawatomie Massacre

The Pottawatomie Massacre is one example of the extreme violence that occurred during the attempted settlement of the Kansas-Nebraska territory. John Brown, a devout religious abolitionist, murdered five pro-slavers in revenge for the pro-slave attack on the Free-soiler town of Lawrence, KS.



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Reform and Abolition Movements: A Social Perspective

Reform and Abolitionist Movements
Reform and Abolitionist Movements

Example

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Using a grid storyboard, have students detail, compare, and contrast the aims of the various abolition and reform movements of the mid- to late 1800s. Groups include those advocating for abolition, women’s rights, or increasing immigration, along with the Second Great Awakening and Transcendentalism.

Students can utilize the grid creatively, but it is recommended they label the rows “Reform Movements” and “Effects”, and list the groups across the columns (see the storyboard example below). This will help foster better understanding of the groups, their role in the mid-late 1800s, and their overall role in the question of slavery.


Extended Activity

Have students research and create a grid for current day reform movements. A multitude of groups and movements could be used and explained on current day issues. Again, promote cause/definitions with that of the effects in which the groups have on the social fabric of America and what their potential roles are in legislation and government actions concerning their respective social movements.



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The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1854

Lincoln Douglas Debates
Lincoln Douglas Debates

Example

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For this activity, students will outline and define the arguments made by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during their famous debates in Illinois’ senatorial election of 1854. Students will use a T-Chart to list, define, and explain the arguments each candidate made, which will help further define the political divide created by “the slave question”. Students should research and understand the several arguments Lincoln makes against slavery’s expansion and Douglas’s arguments for the extension of slavery, based off popular sovereignty and individual/state rights. Students should make note of Lincoln’s “A House Divided” speech and Douglas’s “Freeport Doctrine”, both instrumental in understanding the gravity of the debates.



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The Eve of Civil War – Important Figures and Events

Causes of the Civil War
Causes of the Civil War

Example

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In this activity, students will use a timeline storyboard to portray the major events that precede the Civil War. By examining John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, the election of 1860, the eventual secession of South Carolina, and the bombing of Fort Sumter, students will understand and analyze the events that lead to the outbreak of the Civil War. Other events that can be used include: the Dred Scott decision, the several acts and legislation previously mentioned, or the Election of 1856. This will allow students to understand, in a more literal sense, how and why the Civil War finally came about.


Example Timeline Leading to the Civil War

January 29, 1850

Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 is the first major attempt to settle the dispute between Northerners and Southerners. Both the North and the South receive satisfying terms; however, it demonstrates how difficult the slave question actually is.
May 30, 1854

Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 again serves as an attempted compromise between pro-slavers and anti-slavers. By allowing the people to decide the fate of newly acquired territories through popular sovereignty, the act leads to violence and further strains tensions between the North and the South.
August 21 - October 15, 1858

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Throughout 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate for the position of U.S Senator of Illinois. The debates highlight the growing divide between Free Soilers and Pro-slavers, as both candidates present fierce positions on the subject. Douglas will go on to win the race.
October 16, 1859

John Brown Raids Harpers Ferry

On October 16th, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown, along with 18 other men, raid the Virginian ammunition stockade at Harpers Ferry, in an attempt to begin a race war and slave uprising. John Brown is unsuccessful and eventually sentenced to death. The North views him as a martyr, while the South views him as a traitor.
November 9, 1860

Presidential Election of 1860

The presidential election year of 1860 was both crucial and very telling of things to come. Abraham Lincoln ran as the Republican candidate against Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, and Constitutional Party candidate John Bell. Lincoln emerged victorious.
December 20, 1860

South Carolina Secedes

On December 20th, 1860, South Carolina officially secedes from the Union, marking the beginning of secession by the southern states. The election of Abraham Lincoln triggers more to secede, highlighting the beginning of a very divided America for the next five years.
April 12, 1961

The Firing on Fort Sumter

On April 12th, 1861, the Civil War officially begins when Confederate forces fire upon a Union controlled Fort Sumter. Claiming lay to the fort and demanding Union soldiers retreat from it, the Confederate States decide it is time to take action. Although no casualties are suffered on either side, the attack marks the beginning of the bloodiest American war ever.


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1850s America

In the 1850s, America experienced great tribulations. The “slave question” and its application to newly organized and acquired territories split the country apart. America had grown exponentially in terms of territory and power. Differences between the North and the South were more evident than ever. As the North experienced great industrial growth and expansion, the South remained a mostly agricultural and slave-based economy. The country divided politically as well. With growing abolition and reform movements, social divisions became sharp and fierce.

The 1850s was a decade of unsuccessful attempts to resolve these differences. Events made the possibility of civil war more realistic than ever, but the country aimed first to resolve these growing divisions democratically.

The central question proved to be how new territories and lands would take on the controversial issue of slavery. Through compromises, law, and upheaval, America attempted to tackle this question. By examining 1850s America, one can truly understand what thrust the United States into civil war, a war many deemed inevitable.

Discussion Questions for 1850s America

  1. What divisions existed between the North and the South? How did such divisions increase tensions between these regions?
  2. What were the roles of abolition and reform movements? How did they exemplify the increasing divisions and tensions between social classes, politics, and views from the North and the South?
  3. What legislation and compromises were enacted in an attempt to solve the “slave question” and its expansion?
  4. How were the Lincoln-Douglas debates an example of increasing political divisions and tensions? How did they typify the views of both Southern Democrats and the newly founded Republican Party?
  5. How did events like John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and the election of President Lincoln in 1860 serve as sparks to the inevitable Civil War?
  6. What was the role of morality vs. practicality throughout this time period?

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