Toolkit for "States' Rights and 'Historical Malpractice'"

This professional development activity encourages educators to use primary source documents as a tool to counter common myths about the Confederacy and to discuss with students how we remember (or misremember) history.

This toolkit can help teachers counter common myths about the Confederacy and discuss how we remember (or misremember) history by using primary documents and other supporting materials.


Essential Questions

How are myths about the Confederacy perpetuated?
Why are different perspectives important when reviewing our common history?
How can primary documents help add clarity to history?



Before you begin

Reflect on common narratives you have heard about the Civil War. What were you told? What do you know now? What helped you reach those conclusions? Consider your students’ background on the topic and identify what information you hope they can glean from the activity.



Explore primary documents—such as the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States—explaining the motivation behind secession and the Civil War. Note explicit statements pointing to slavery as an animating grievance, such as this sentence from Georgia’s declaration: “The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.”

If you’re doing this PD activity in groups, assign each person a state or historical figure. Once you’ve combed through the documents, stop and think:

  • How do these statements related to slavery refute or support the narrative that defense of “state’s rights” led to the Civil War?
  • How did the documents frame the institution of slavery? Do they endorse its practices as essential? Do they address or ignore its implications in terms of economics? In terms of morality or humanity?


Go deeper

Now, consider how you could use primary documents like these to dispel myths in your classroom. Remember that fact-checking a student in real time may not always be effective, as our brains are programmed to avoid changing our minds. With your group, or on your own, answer the following questions:

  • When and how can I use primary documents in my current lessons surrounding the Civil War?
  • Which documents will my students find most interesting or convincing?



Complete this activity and consider how you might adapt it to meet the needs and grade level of your students.

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