Origins of the Civil War

What was the Civil War all about? The answer lies mainly 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 President Lincoln let them go?

In this course, students will learn about conflicting interpretations of the Civil War and examine the cascading series of events that preceded the Civil War, including

  • The War with Mexico
  • The “Compromise” of 1850
  • The Fugitive Slave Act
  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act
  • The Dred Scott Decision
  • The Rise of the Republican Party
  • The Election of 1860

Read the course outline here and listen to a history teacher introduce the course below.


Please create a free K–12 student account. Note: Only K–12 logged-in students will be able to access the registration form.


  • Twenty-four videos led by Professor James Oakes
  • A certificate of completion for 12 hours of course time

Readings: Recommended readings related to the course are listed in the Resources link on the course page. You are not required to read or purchase any print materials. Quizzes are based on the content of the recordings rather than the readings.

Course Access: After registering, you may access your course by logging in and going to My Courses under My Account.


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 pre-war 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.

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