Teaching Activities (Free)

The Election of 1860 Role Play

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 12 pages.
A role play based on the election of 1860 allows students to explore the political debates of the time and the real reasons for the Civil War.

Time Periods: 19th Century, 1850
Themes: African American, Slavery and Resistance, Wars & Related Anti-War Movements

The Election of 1860 Role Play (Teaching Activity) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryMost of my students share a cartoon-like version of the causes of the Civil War: slavery was horrible; President Abraham Lincoln was a great man who hated slavery; so, to free the slaves, he fought a war against the South; the North won and the slaves were freed.

This common but wildly inaccurate history reinforces at least two unfortunate myths: the United States fights wars only for high moral purposes; and African Americans owe their freedom to the efforts of a great white man.

The activities in this lesson offer students a more complex and truthful historical picture, and, thus, help to puncture these myths.

Four political parties competed for the presidency in 1860. The outcome resulted in a social earthquake that permanently transformed the United States of America. The role play asks students to confront the actual issues addressed by the different parties in 1860. It gives students the tools to analyze some of the main causes of the Civil War, and helps them expel the simplistic notions of the war’s aims that they may, perhaps unconsciously, carry around.

Classroom Story

The Election of 1860 Role Play lesson was a great tool to introduce the lead up to the Civil War. The debates and speeches were fantastic, and students worked really hard to really dig into the history. My biggest takeaway was students commenting that they had always thought Lincoln was an amazing president, but they learned that, like all people, he had a complicated life.

—CJ McDermott
Middle School Social Studies Teacher, Forest Lake, Minnesota

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