The Civil War and Reconstruction - 1850-1861: A House Divided

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A House Divided: The Road to Civil War, 1850-1861 begins by examining how generations of historians have explained the crisis of the Union. After discussing the institution of slavery and its central role in the southern and national economies, it turns to an account of the political and social history of the 1850s. It traces how the issue of the expansion of slavery came to dominate national politics, and how political leaders struggled, unsuccessfully, to resolve the growing crisis. We will examine the impact of key events such as Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and end with the dissolution of the Union in the winter of 1860-61.

This course is part of the XSeries, Civil War and Reconstruction , which introduces students to the most pivotal era in American history. The Civil War transformed the nation by eliminating the threat of secession and destroying the institution of slavery. It raised questions that remain central to our understanding of ourselves as a people and a nation – the balance of power between local and national authority, the boundaries of citizenship, and the meanings of freedom and equality. This XSeries will examine the causes of the war, the road to secession, the conduct of the Civil War, the coming of emancipation, and the struggle after the war to breathe meaning into the promise of freedom for four million emancipated slaves. One theme throughout the series is what might be called the politics of history – how the world in which a historian lives affects his or her view of the past, and how historical interpretations reinforce or challenge the social order of the present.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress


Eric Foner
Eric Foner

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, is one of the most prominent historians in the United States. He is one of only two persons to serve as president of the three major professional organizations: the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, and Society of American Historians. His most recent book, Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, is available wherever books are sold.

Professor Foner is the author or editor of over twenty books. His publications have concentrated on the intersections of intellectual, political and social history and the history of American race relations. His most recent book, Gateway to Freedom, was released in the beginning of 2015. His previous book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2013), was awarded the Bancroft Prize, Pulitzer Prize for History, and The Lincoln Prize. Professor Foner is also the author of Give Me Liberty!: An American History, a widely-used survey textbook of U. S. history published by W. W. Norton and Co.

Additionally, he is the recipient of the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching from Columbia University. As co-curator of two award-winning historical exhibitions, and through frequent appearances in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television discussion programs, he has also endeavored to bring historical knowledge to a broad public outside the university.

Tim Shenk
Tim Shenk
Timothy Shenk is a graduate student in history at Columbia University. His writings have appeared in the Nation, Dissent, and Jacobin, among other venues, and he is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.
Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning
Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning
The Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) builds learning experiences on campus and online to support excellence and innovation across educational programs at Columbia University. Working in close partnership with the Columbia teaching community, CTL is committed to advancing the culture of teaching and learning for professional development, curricular enhancement, and academic excellence. Through its programs, services, and resources, we support the purposeful use of new media and emerging technologies in the classroom and online to foster the success of Columbia’s instructors and students.