Political and Social Origins of the Civil War

Standards Addressed

Standard 1AThe student understands how the North and South differed and how politics and ideologies led to Civil War.

Standards 5-12: Explain the causes of the Civil War and evaluate the importance of slavery as a cause of the conflict (Analyzing competing historical sources)


When the student is finished with this lesson, he/she should be able to:

  • Discuss the causes of the Civil War, from both a Northern and Southern perspective
  • Evaluate the strength of Southern and Northern rationale for going to war
  • Discuss the differences between Northern and Southern society in the pre-Civil War period
  • Answer the question as to whether or not the Civil War was inevitable

Lesson Abstract

This lesson deals with the political and social origins of the American Civil War.

Lesson Length

 1-2 class periods


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Primary Sources

  1. “That’s What’s the Matter!” by Stephen Foster
  2. “Better Times Are Coming” by Stephen Foster
  3. “The Battle Cry of Freedom” by George Root (Northern version)
  4. “The Battle Cry of Freedom" by George Root (Southern version)
  5. “The Bonnie Blue Flag” by Harry McCarthy 

Secondary Sources

  1. “Civil War Records: A War by Any Other Name” from the National Archives
  2. Antislavery Literature Project from Arizona State University
  3. The Election of 1856 from the Center for American Music
  4. Election of 1860 from Tulane University
  5. The Origins of the Civil War from the University of Albany
  6. “The Cornerstone Address” by Alexander Stephens from Ashland University

Background Information

(see also the Center for American Music’s lesson plan for the Election of 1856)

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, a growing tension was developing between the Northern and Southern United States of America. That tension mainly centered upon the existence of slavery in the Southern states. Most Northern states had abolished slavery by 1850, and the newly formed Republican Party campaigned on a promise to end slavery completely. They wanted the South to begin to build themselves up industrially, in order to resemble the North more, and to utilize the concept of “free labor,” that is, paying people to work rather than enslaving them.

For their part, Southerners resented the North’s attempts to limit what they considered to be their natural way of life. They argued that whether or not slavery should be allowed was for the individual states to decide, and it was not the place of the national government to interfere. They also argued that the industrial growth of the North would not be possible without the raw materials provided by the South, specifically the slave labor of the South. Congressmen from the South began to organize and opposed efforts to limit the growth of slavery in any way.

Matters came to a head following the election of 1860. The election was won by Republican Abraham Lincoln, who won without earning the electoral votes of a single Southern state. Following the confirmation of the results, South Carolina formally seceded from the United States of America on December 21, 1860, and attacked the US Army garrison at Fort Sumter four months later in April 1861. By May of 1861, eleven states in total had seceded from the Union, and the Civil War had begun in earnest.

Suggestions for Using Audio and Song Lyrics

Allow the students to listen to and read the lyrics of the songs listed in the ‘Primary Resources’ section of this lesson plan. Ask the students to consider the following questions as they listen to each song:

What is the tone of each song?

  • Is it happy? Sad? Angry?
  • Is it fast or slow?
  • How does the song make you feel when you hear it?

Think about the words

  • What words do the Southern and Northern songs have in common?
  • How are these words used in each song?
  • How does each song characterize the other side?
  • Are the verses long or short?
  • Is there a chorus? If so, does it repeat?

About the Songs

  • How do you think these songs were used?
  • Who was the intended audience for these songs?
  • How are the Northern and Southern versions of “Battle Cry of Freedom similar and different?
    • Do the songs indicate that war was inevitable?
  • How are “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “That’s What’s the Matter” similar and different?

Suggested Points for Discussion

  • Why is it important for each side to prove that the other started the war?
  • How did the North and the South differ socially before the Civil War?
  • How did songs act as propaganda during the war?
  • Is there any way the North and South could have worked out their differences without resorting to war?
  • What does the word “freedom” mean in a Northern and a Southern context?
  • Why did the North and South have different names for what eventually became known as The Civil War? (Refer to the “A War by Any Other Name" in secondary sources)
  • Are the political divisions between North and South still present today?

Suggested Classroom Activities/Assignments

  • Comparison and Contrast- Ask each student to prepare a brief essay comparing the Northern and Southern versions of “Battle Cry of Freedom.” What does each version of the song say about each side?
  • Research Skills- Ask the students to choose one of the historical figures or events from the songs “That’s What’s the Matter” or “Better Times Are Coming” and write a report on that person/event.
  • Analyzing Primary Sources- Ask each student to analyze one of the songs presented in the “Primary Sources” section for factual data as well the strength of any argument the song may be making.
  • Thinking Critically About History- Using materials in this lesson plan, their textbooks and any other reading, ask students to write an essay on what they think the ultimate cause of the American Civil War was: sectionalism, states’ rights, slavery or social differences?
  • Thinking Creatively About History- Ask each student to write a short letter from the viewpoint of Abraham Lincoln, responding to the news that South Carolina seceded from the Union in response to his election. Or ask them to write from the viewpoint of a South Carolinian in favor of secession.
  • Linking Past and Present- The American Civil War is a source of great controversy to this day. Ask students to write a brief response essay on why they think the issues of the Civil War are still sensitive today.

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