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

Discover how the issue of slavery came to dominate American politics, and how political leaders struggled and failed to resolve the growing crisis in the nation.



Weekly Effort

6 hours




Course Description

  • Explore the explanations provided by generations of historians for the crisis of the Union, analyzing their perspectives on the road to the Civil War.

  • Examine the central role of slavery in the southern and national economies, investigating its influence on political and social history during the 1850s.

  • Trace the dominance of the expansion of slavery as a national political issue, analyzing the struggles of political leaders in resolving the growing crisis.

  • Analyze key events such as Bleeding Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, evaluating their impact on the dissolution of the Union in the winter of 1860-61.


This is the first of three courses in the The Civil War and Reconstruction series:


  1. The Civil War and Reconstruction 1850–1861: A House Divided
  2. The Civil War and Reconstruction 1861–1865: A New Birth of Freedom
  3. The Civil War and Reconstruction 1865–1890: The Unfinished Revolution

What You Will Learn

By the end of this course, learners will be able to:


  • Develop a comprehensive understanding of the political and social history of the 1850s and its connection to the crisis of the Union.

  • Analyze the significant role of slavery in both the southern and national economies, and its profound impact on American politics and society.

  • Evaluate how the expansion of slavery became a dominant issue in national politics, shaping the course of events leading to the crisis of the Union.

  • Engage directly with primary sources from Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library, gaining first hand experience in working with historical materials to deepen their understanding of the subject matter.


Course Outline


Module 1: Setting the stage

Module 2: American slavery

Module 3: Historians and the coming of the Civil War

Module 4: Territorial expansion and sectional conflict

Module 5: Immigration and nativism

Module 6: Rise of the Republican Party

Module 7: The Buchanan Administration

Module 8: The emergence of Lincoln

Module 9: The gathering storm

Module 10: The secession crisis


Eric Foner
Eric Foner
DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University

Eric Foner is a prominent historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He has served as president of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, and Society of American Historians. Foner's focus is on the intersections of intellectual, political, social history, and American race relations. He has authored or edited over twenty books, including The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize, Pulitzer Prize for History, and The Lincoln Prize. Foner's most recent book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, is widely available. Foner has also been recognized for his outstanding teaching, receiving the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching from Columbia University. As a co-curator of two award-winning historical exhibitions and through frequent appearances in various media, he aims to bring historical knowledge to a broad public.

Please note that there are no instructors or course assistants actively monitoring this course.

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