The Path to War?

by John P. Spencer and Ellen Noonan

The Seriate Slide Cabinet in the American Museum's Waxworks room conveys the events of the 1850s that brought tensions between North and South to a boiling point. For this activity, students will have to work collaboratively to create a written explanation of the slide show for a foreign visitor to the American Museum who doesn’t know about the events shown in the slides or their significance.

Historical Context
Between 1820 and 1860, the extent and speed of westward expansion raised unsettling questions about slavery and race in American society. Would the new western territories come into the Union as free or slave states? What would happen to the balance of power between free and slave states in the U.S. Senate? Who would control the land in the West: slaveholding planters, capitalist entrepreneurs, or pioneer farmers and workers? But it was not only westward expansion and development that pushed slavery to center stage in American life. Slavery became a key moral and emotional issue after 1830 because of the growing resistance of slaves themselves and the militancy of black and white abolitionists. For forty years, political leaders in the nation’s two major parties, the Whigs and Democrats, tried first to avoid the slavery issue, then to reach a compromise. But by 1860, the raw emotions dividing the sides left little room for compromise.

abolition, western expansion, free labor, slavery, sectionalism

Students will:

1) Explain how events after the Compromise of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision in 1857 contributed to increasing sectional polarization. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships] (National History Standards, Era 5, Standard 1A)

2) Explain the causes of the Civil War and evaluate the importance of slavery as a principal cause of the conflict. [Compare competing historical narratives] (National History Standards, Era 5, Standard 1A)

3) Evaluate alternative courses of action and formulate a position or course of action on an issue (National History Standards, Standards of Historical Thinking, 5)

Assessment: 250 word written description; class discussion



Step 1:
The entire class should review the seriate slide cabinet slide show in the Waxworks Room. For this activity, students will have to create a written explanation of the slides for a foreign visitor to the American Museum who doesn’t know about the events shown in the slides or their significance.

Step 2:
Divide the class into eight pairs or small groups and assign each group one of the following slides: Compromise of 1850/Fugitive Slave Law; Uncle Tom’s Cabin published; Bloody Kansas; Rep. Brooks Attacks Sen. Sumner; Dred Scott case; John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry; 1860 presidential election; Secession. Each pair/group should closely analyze their assigned slide and take notes about it.

Step 3:
Students should investigate other sources for explanations of what their slide means. This should include reading the primary documents, images, headnotes, and essays in the Archive that relate to their slide; their textbook; and other online resources if necessary. Students should take notes about how these primary and secondary sources help to explain the event depicted on the slide, and if they offer contradictory interpretations of that event.

Step 4 (Assessment):
Working together and using their notes, the pairs/groups should write a 250 word explanation of their slide for a foreigner visiting the American Museum.

Step 5 (Class Discussion):
One member of every pair/group should read their written explanation to the class. Teachers can use these readings as the basis for a class discussion about the events of the 1850s; this discussion might include comparing students’ interpretations of events with the interpretations of historians, or considering whether any alternatives to Civil War might have been possible.