Origins of the Civil War, led by James Oakes, City University of New York

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What was the Civil War all about? The answer lies largely in its origins. This 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 Lincoln let them? The readings focus on two aspects of the crisis. We will first review conflicting interpretations of the origins of the Civil War, after which we will focus on specific aspects of the crisis of 1850, 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 Scot 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 Lincoln and the secession crisis. No one methodology can adequately account for the origins of the Civil War-it requires economic, social, political, and cultural history.


 • Twelve seminar sessions led by Professor James Oakes

• Primary source readings that supplement Professor Oakes's lectures

• A certificate of completion for 15 hours of professional development credit

Readings: The optional readings for each seminar session are listed in the “Resources” tab on the course page. Please note that you are not required to read or purchase any print materials. Quizzes are based on the content of the seminar recordings rather than the readings.

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LEAD SCHOLAR: James Oakes, one of the leading historians of nineteenth-century America, has an international reputation for path-breaking scholarship. In a series of influential books and essays, he tackled the history of the United States from the Revolution through the Civil War. His early work focused on the South, examining slavery as an economic and social system that shaped Southern life. His pioneering books include The Ruling Race (1982; 2nd ed., 1998); Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (1990); The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2007); and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 (2012). The latter two garnered, respectively, the 2008 and 2013 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, an annual award for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War era.