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Road to Secession: Factors Leading to the Civil War

Grade Level: Middle School  

Subject: Social Studies / History  

Duration: 2 class periods (90 minutes each)


Students will identify and explain the key factors that led to the secession of Southern states and the Civil War. They will analyze primary and secondary sources related to the causes of the Civil War. They will create a timeline of events leading to the Civil War. Finally, students will engage in a debate representing different perspectives from the historical period.


  • Understand the causes, course, and consequences of the Civil War.

  • Analyze primary and secondary sources.

  • Develop an argument based on evidence from multiple sources.


Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction (10 minutes)

Discuss: Briefly discuss the importance of understanding historical causes and their impact.

Ask: Present the essential question: "What were the main factors that led to the secession of Southern states and the start of the Civil War?"

2. Direct Instruction (20 minutes)

Say: Lecture on the major factors leading to the Civil War, covering the following:

Key Factors

  • Economic differences between the North and South

  • States' rights vs. federal authority

  • The issue of slavery and its expansion into new territories

  • The rise of abolitionism 

Key Events

  • Missouri Compromise - Federal legislation that prevented the expansion of slavery. 

  • Compromise of 1850 - A group of five bills that attempted to lower tensions between slave states and free states. 

  • Kansas-Nebraska Act - An act that created Kansas and Nebraskan territories.

  • Dred Scott decision - a Supreme Court decision that denied black citizenship and ruled the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional. 

Key Figures

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe - An American author and abolitionist who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 

  • Frederick Douglass - An American abolitionist, statesman, advocate, and writer. 

  • Abraham Lincoln - The 16th President of the United States.

3. Primary Source Analysis (30 minutes)

Do: Divide students into groups and assign each group a primary source document.

Ask: Provide guiding questions or prompts to analyze the documents on the following:

  • Author’s perspective - Did they have an opinion or bias?

  • Purpose - Why was this written (persuade, inform, etc.)?

  • Historical context - What was happening before or during this time that would have affected this document?

  • Perspective - Was there anything missing from this perspective?

Do: Have each group present their findings to the class.

4. Creating a Timeline (30 minutes)

Do: Distribute timeline templates. Instruct students to place key events and factors discussed on their timeline. Encourage students to include illustrations or symbols to represent different events.

5. Introduction to Debate (40 minutes)

Say: Introduce the debate activity and ground rules. Students will represent different historical perspectives like the following:

  • Northern industrialists

  • Southern plantation owners

  • Abolitionists

  • Enslaved people

  • Political leaders

Do: Assign roles to students or groups and provide time for research using textbooks, handouts, and internet resources. Students should prepare arguments and counterarguments based on their assigned perspectives.

6. Debate (40 minutes)

Do: Organize the classroom to facilitate the debate. Set ground rules for respectful discussion. Allow each group to present their perspective and respond to others. Moderate the debate to ensure all voices are heard and to keep the discussion on track.

7. Reflection and Wrap-Up (10 minutes)

Ask: How did the debate change your perspective of these groups of people?

Discuss: Talk about the outcomes of the debate and reflect on the complexity of the causes of the Civil War.

Ask: Which factors had a direct effect on the perspective you were assigned?

Do: Invite the students to write a short paragraph on which factor they believe was most significant and why.

 Assessment Ideas:

  • Participation in group work and class discussions.

  • Quality and completeness of the timeline.

  • Contribution to the debate, including evidence-based arguments.

  • Reflection paragraph on the most significant factor leading to the Civil War.

 Additional Learning:

  • Research project on a specific event or figure related to the Civil War.

  • Creative writing assignment imagining a day in the life of someone living in the pre-Civil War period.

  • Field trip to a local museum or historical site related to the Civil War.

Written by Rachel Jones
Education World Contributor
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