From James W. Loewen’s essay in OAH Magazine of History

Since 1998, I have been asking general audiences, college undergraduates, people who run historic sites, and K– 12 history and social studies teachers, “ Why did South Carolina, and then ten other Southern states, secede?” Invariably I get four answers:

1. slavery
2. states’ rights
3. tariffs and taxes (or issues about tariffs and taxes)
4. the election of Lincoln.

Repeatedly, I then ask these audiences to vote. All my audiences weigh in similarly, whether they are teachers, students, or historic site staff. Nor does region make a difference: from south Florida to North Dakota, responses are the same. States’rights draws fifty-five to seventy-five percent of the votes. Slavery usually receives about twenty percent. The election of Lincoln usually gets only a handful — two percent. Tariffs and taxes varies from ten to twenty percent, depending largely on how many votes go to states’ rights. Teachers can modify what I do next into an activity for students. I ask my audiences, “What do we do now? Does majority rule? Is that how we do history?” “No, no,” they chorus. “ We need evidence.” “OK,” I reply, “what would be good evidence to resolve the matter?” Student audiences may say, “Google it!” to which one reply might be, “Google what ?” Googling does not replace the human judgment required to sift through the results and decide what is credible. Teachers typically volunteer, “Newspaper articles ” — on the right track, but vague. I reply, “From the 1993 Portland Oregonian ? “No, no,” they chorus. “From South Carolina in 1860.” Now we can discuss the meaning of primary sources and the important role they should play in this exploration. South Carolina newspapers are good, I admit, but they are hardly the best source. Audience members may volunteer, “Diaries from the time.” Again, these are primary sources, but hardly the best. Eventually, someone will usually say, “Wasn’t there some sort of convention? Didn’t it say why South Carolina was leaving the Union?” If no one does, teachers can pull out the document discussed below, read its title, and ask if it might be relevant. Students will immediately grasp that it is the “smoking gun.”

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