History U | Origins of the Civil War

Origins of the Civil War

This History U course examines various aspects of what historians call “The Crisis of the 1850s,” the crucial decade that ended in the secession of eleven slave states from the Union. Why did they secede? And why didn’t President Lincoln let them go?


Course Instructor: Professor James Oakes, City University of New York
Eligibility: High school students


Image Source: Timothy H. O’Sullivan, “Five generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina,” 1862 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC05111.01.1038)

Photograph taken during Reconstruction Era showing five generations of African-Americans
  • History U

  • Free for high school students

Course Description

What was the Civil War all about? The answer lies mainly in its origins. This History U course spans the colonial era through the eve of the Civil War. After reviewing conflicting interpretations of the origins of the Civil War, we will focus on specific aspects of the crisis of the 1850s, in particular the cascading series of events that led to war: the war with Mexico, the “Compromise” of 1850, the fugitive slave crisis, the struggle over Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, the collapse of the Whig Party, the rise of the Republican Party, the catastrophic fissure of the Democratic Party, and finally the election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession crisis. No one methodology can adequately account for the origins of the Civil War—it requires an understanding of economic, social, political, and cultural history.

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The views expressed in this course are those of Dr. James Oakes.


  • Twenty-four video sessions led by Professor James Oakes
  • Links to optional resources
  • Short quizzes to review your knowledge
  • A certificate of completion for 12 hours of course time

How to Access

  1. Click Log In and either log into your account or click the Sign Up link on the login screen to create an account.
  2. Click the Register Now button and complete the order form.
  3. After registering, you may access your course by signing in and visiting your My Courses link under My Account.

Course Introduction

Zachary MacIntosh explains what you will learn in this course.

About the Scholar

James Oakes, Professor of History, American Studies, and Africana Studies, City University of New York

James Oakes is a Distinguished Professor of History, American Studies, and Africana Studies at the City University of New York. He has written extensively about slavery, the prewar South, and the Civil War. Two of his books, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865, won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. His book The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution was published in 2021.

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