Module 13 Discussion: Was it Inevitable?


Consider the following prompts and employ the text and primary sources from this course. If you use outside sources your classmates may not be familiar with, please include a link so that your ideas can be traced. Be an active thinker, and put your own analysis, experiences, and understanding of history to work in this activity.

Part 1: Historians often wrestle with the question of whether a particular event was “inevitable” or if a different outcome was possible. Few events generate this kind of “counterfactual” or “what if…” thinking more than the buildup to the Civil War.

  • Prompt: Imagine for a moment that you are a time traveler sent on a mission to prevent the Civil War from taking place. You can intercede in one event from the 1850s found in this timeline. In three to four sentences, identify your selection and why you think altering this particular event will make the Civil War less likely.

Part 2: Read at least two of your classmates’ responses to the prompt closely. If you like, you can act as though you are a manager at this time travel agency, making sure that your agents are making their decisions wisely and with due consideration.

  • Prompt: In your responses, politely troubleshoot your peer’s selections: would this change have likely prevented the Civil War? Whether it would or not, how might this change alter the sequence of events and what might be its long-term consequences? Who might benefit from such a change, and who might fare worse than in ‘our’ timeline?

Worked Example

Part 1: In order to prevent the Civil War, I would convince the Supreme Court justices of the Roger Taney court to alter their ruling on Dred Scott vs. Sandford. This ruling in effect undid the Compromises of 1820 and 1850 which alternately permitted and forbade the institution of slavery within the territories as the U.S. frontier expanded. By avoiding the logic that enslaved people were property no matter where in the union they resided, a balance of free and slave states in Congress could be maintained allowing neither side to have an upper hand.

Part 2: I understand the appeal of this choice; it’s hard to think of a Supreme Court decision that looks so poorly reasoned and inhumane in retrospect. Yet those compromises were already on ‘life support’ because popular sovereignty—allowing the denizens of a state to choose whether it would tolerate slavery—had taken their place. One need only look at Kansas to see that violence between free labor and enslaved labor advocates would flare up regardless of slavery’s technical legality and regardless of whether congressional “balance” existed.   

Discussion Grading Rubric:

Criteria Poor Good Excellent Points
On-topic response Response is off-topic or tangential to the theme. Response addresses the topic at hand and  is written in lucid, complete sentences. Response shows an understanding of cause and effect, and is chosen with an awareness of other unfolding events in this module and/or previous modules. ____/2
Supporting Justification The understanding of the event being changed is thin and unsubstantiated. The plan for preventing the war is unrealistic or shows an insubstantial understanding of cause and effect. The event chosen is conveyed in a way that limits insight or analysis to what is directly covered in the assigned texts. Relevant detail is present and properly cited. A keen analysis of cause and effect is present. In the best responses, the historical event is considered from more than one perspective. ____/4
Feedback and “troubleshooting” response Feedback to other students is superficial, mean spirited, or unhelpful. The feedback may be While polite and well-intentioned without being fully constructive. Alternatively, it shows an understanding of the buildup to the Civil War that doesn’t take the concepts and chronology of the unit into account persuasively. Civility and incisive thinking are on display. The answer shows the interconnectivity of events leading up to the Civil War. The very best answers might address how multi-causal massive conflicts like the Civil War can be. ____/4
  Total ___/10