How did the institution of slavery lead to the Civil War?
First edition. May 2019.

The Civil War is a key event in U.S. history. Its causes can be traced to the colonial era; its legacies remain visible today. At its center is the indelible issue of slavery. In an 1864 speech, President Abraham Lincoln identified a fundamental disagreement at the center of the Civil War: What does liberty mean? Whose liberty, and what kind of liberty, should the United States prioritize? Did liberty mean that the United States should abolish slavery and that enslaved people should achieve freedom? Or did liberty mean protecting the ability of slaveholders to own people as property and exploit their labor? The Civil War and the Meaning of Liberty helps students consider the experiences of many groups of people in the United States as well as the issues driving the political confrontation over slavery and the meaning of liberty.

Preview this unit. Preview includes the Table of Contents for the Student Text and the Teacher Resource Book as well as a student reading excerpt and one lesson plan.


The Geography of Slavery and the Cotton Economy

Students analyze and map demographic and economic data to explore the relationship between the expansion of slavery and the cotton boom in the antebellum United States.

Interpreting Political Cartoons

Students analyze political cartoons of the antebellum era and place them in their historical context.

Who Were the Abolitionists?

Taking on the roles of a range of abolitionists, students gain familiarity with the ideas and values of individuals in a broader historical context.

Black National Conventions, Abolition, and the Constitution

Students examine an address delivered at the Black National Convention held in Philadelphia in 1855 and analyze the ways its authors made arguments based on the U.S. Constitution.

Spies, Nurses, and Organizers: Women’s Participation in the Civil War

By examining excerpts from diaries, letters, and narratives, students collect and compare evidence about women’s contributions to the Civil War.

Letters from Black Soldiers and Their Families

Students closely analyze the language and craft of letters by black soldiers and consider their experiences in the Union Army.

Food as History

Students analyze primary sources about food and identify the role of food shortages in the lives of people in the South during the Civil War.

The Battle of Gettysburg

Students use different types of sources including maps, images, diary entries, and letters to deepen their understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg. The lesson includes a close reading of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

Civil War Photographs as Sources

After analyzing photographic sources from the Civil War, students assess the significance of photography to people’s understandings of the war both at the time and afterward.

The House, The Senate, and the Debate over the Thirteenth Amendment

Working collaboratively, students take on the roles of historians and analyze primary sources from two Congressional debates in 1864 about whether to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

Historical Memory: Commemorating the Civil War

Students explore the purpose of memorials and consider the idea of historical memory. Students then design a memorial to commemorate the Civil War.

In this online lesson, students apply the concept of historical memory to the controversy over Confederate monuments. Students examine media sources that express a range of views on the controversy.


Supplemental Resources

Additional reference material for added context and support.


Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Basic Books, 2016.

Berlin, Ira. The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Bedford/St. Martin’s, Macmillan Learning, 2019.

Jackson, Kellie Carter. Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Johnson, Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Harvard University Press, 2017.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Morehouse, Maggi M., and Zoe Trodd. Civil War America: A Social and Cultural History. Routledge, 2013.

Sinha, Manisha. The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. Yale University Press, 2016.

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge University, 2001.

Thousands of primary sources that explore the life in two communities, Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania, from John Brown’s raid through Reconstruction.
This database at the Library of Congress contains the records of the congressional debates between 1833 and 1873.
This collections contains thousands of photographs, prints, and drawings.
A multimedia archive of primary and secondary sources.
A website with primary source collections about the history of the U.S. South.
Search the Smithsonian database for viewing primary sources on early U.S. history from all of the Smithsonian Museums.
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