The OAH Magazine of History

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Civil War at 150: Origins

from the editor

Nat Turner Rebellion Cotillion, by Carl R. Weinberg

On December 9, 2010, a rare event took place on American television. An actor on a top-rated comedy show read from a primary historical document. The reader was Larry Wilmore, “Senior Black Correspondent” for Comedy Central’s Daily Show . The document was the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” The context was a “news” story about plans by the Confederate Heritage Trust (CHT) to hold a secession gala in Charleston on December 20 to commemorate the departure of South Carolina from the Union 150 years earlier. Read online >


The Coming of the Civil War,
by Matthew Pinsker
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The Political Origins of the Civil War,
by Jonathan Earle
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Slavery, the Constitution, and the Origins of the Civil War,
by Paul Finkelman
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Gender History and the Origins of the Civil War,
by Elizabeth R. Varon
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The Dred Scott Case as an American Saga,
by Lea VanderVelde
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The Economic Origins of the Civil War,
by Marc Egnal
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teaching resources

Using Confederate Documents to Teach About Secession, Slavery, and the Origins of the Civil War,
by James W. Lowen
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Editor's Choice

Interpreting John Brown: Infusing Historical Thinking into the Classroom,
Bruce A. Lesh
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Becoming John Brown: Living History in the Classroom,
by Gerry Kohler
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Commemorating America’s Civil War Sesquicentennial,
by James A. Percoco
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history today

Editor's Choice

The Strange Career of Confederate History Month,
by Carl R. Weinberg
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Governor McDonnell's 2011 Civil War History in Virginia Month Proclamation

on the cover

Thomas Hovenden (1840—1895), The Last Moments of John Brown, 1882—84. Oil on canvas, 77 3/4 x 66 1/4 inches. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Stoeckel, 1897 [97.5]; Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Architect of the October 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, radical abolitionist John Brown descends the stairs at the jailhouse in Charlestown, Virginia on the way to his execution for treason, murder, and conspiracy. According to a New York Tribune article printed three days after his death, Brown allegedly planted a kiss on the cheek of an enslaved child. Several works of art recorded the alleged scene over the following quarter century, culminating with Hovenden’s masterful 1884 painting, seen here, which was commissioned by Robbins Battell, a wealthy businessman from New York. The story of the kiss is almost certainly fictional. But just as Hovenden and his patron in the 1880s sought to portray Brown as a sympathetic, kindly old man rather than as a violent criminal, the Tribune newspaper reporter in 1859 could not help but embellish his story to place Brown in a positive light. Like the broader debate over the place of slavery in the origins of the Civil War, the ongoing conflict over how to portray John Brown reflects the contested, interpretative nature of the historical enterprise.