Learning About Secession and Assassination through Discrepant Event Inquiries

Lesson Launch Blog

By Dr. Paul E. Binford

Past President, Mississippi Council for the Social Studies


This is the first of a two-part blog post on an engaging and flexible social studies teaching strategy known as the Discrepant Event Inquiry.

Part One

Recently, talk of secession has re-emerged, for vastly different reasons, in the states of California and Texas. Likewise, several Hollywood stars have threatened to become expatriates (a kind of personalized secession) because of their discontent with the result of the most recent presidential election.

In spite of the currency of this term, secession (withdrawal from the union) has been singularly and, therefore, erroneously connected exclusively with the Antebellum South in the minds of many students and the broader citizenry.

Students are presented with a puzzling, paradoxical, or discrepant event or story at the beginning of a lesson. Students ask questions, pose hypotheses, analyze and synthesize information, and draw tentative conclusions while attempting to find an answer to the puzzle.
— A Link to the Past

As social studies teachers, how can we correct this common misunderstanding among our students? Worded differently, how can we help students learn that there were differing views on the nature of the relationship between the federal government and the states, which are nearly as old as the Republic itself? Furthermore, how can we transform the concept of secession into an engaging learning opportunity for our students?

These “how” questions are largely methodological in nature (more on that in a moment), but, first, some historical context is in order.

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The Antebellum South’s role in the secession crisis of 1860-61, when seven southern states seceded culminating in a calamitous civil war, is undeniable. However, it was hardly the first or the only time that a state or section of the country considered a political exit from the Union. For the first seventy years or so of the Republic, the possibility of secession remained an open question:

Did a state have the right to leave the Union?

Thoughts and talk of leaving the Union are nearly as old as the federal government, itself. Some argued that the Constitution, once ratified, created a Union in pertuity (forever) while others argued that the ratification merely created a political compact, which was freely agreed upon by the individual states and could be just as freely and unilaterally terminated. While this question resurfaced throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 provided a clear, definitive, and unequivocal answer—”No!”

One early example of this secession talk occurred shortly after the first partisan transition of power. The New England states, who were controlled by the Federalist Party, became increasingly discontent with federal government policy once the Democratic-Republicans (later just Republicans) seized power in the Election of 1800. President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 prevented the nation’s trading ships from embarking for foreign ports. This had a profound and detrimental impact on the New England states, who relied heavily on commerce with Europe for their economic well-being.

 Drawing of Daniel Webster, 1833  Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003653045/.

Drawing of Daniel Webster, 1833

Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003653045/.

While the Embargo Act was eventually repealed in the final days of the Jefferson administration, the second blow to the New England states soon followed. This section of the country had only begun to recover economically, when the United States declared war on Great Britain in June of 1812. Similar trade restrictions were swiftly re-instituted, which made the war decidedly unpopular in New England.

As a result, New Englanders spoke openly about leaving the Union and a young lawyer from New Hampshire named Daniel Webster, soon to be elected to the House of Representatives, captured the essence of secessionist sentiment:

If a separation of the States ever should take place, it will be on some occasion when one portion of the country undertakes to control, to regulate, and to sacrifice the interest of another; when a small and heated majority in government . . . shall, by hasty . . . measures, threaten to destroy essential rights and lay waste the most important interests.

His “Rockingham Memorial” speech, as it became known, echoes in utterances occurring nearly fifty years later as southern states recoiled from the election of a “free-soil” and “Black Republican” lawyer from Illinois. Upon first impression, Webster’s prophetic words sound hauntingly like an antebellum Southern Fire-eater as opposed to a turn of the nineteenth century New England Yankee. This misimpression or confusion can be leveraged to create a high-interest learning activity for your students.

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Let’s now return to the methodological question: How can students learn about the concept of secession in a more accurate and historically sophisticated manner?

The Discrepant Event Inquiry (DEI) is a teaching strategy that can launch a lesson, while helping students develop a more complete understanding of the long-standing secession debate.

A Link to the Past.jpg

The Discrepant Event Inquiry is described in A Link to the Past (pp. 6-8). The lead author, Michael M. Yell, is a middle school teacher in Wisconsin, a National Social Studies Teacher of the Year recipient, and a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. Here’s how Yell (et al.) describes the DEI strategy:

“Students are presented with a puzzling, paradoxical, or discrepant event or story at the beginning of a lesson. Students ask questions, pose hypotheses, analyze and synthesize information, and draw tentative conclusions while attempting to find an answer to the puzzle.” (p. 7)

The strategy has four basic steps:

  1. Develop and present an inquiry (e.g, a story, puzzle, paradoxical statement, quotation, or map, etc.), along with a guiding question, which provides a clue(s) while also omitting a key piece of information.

  2. Students formulate and ask the teacher questions with the ultimate goal of solving the puzzle (i.e., answering the guiding question). Students must ask questions that can be answered by the teacher with a “yes” or “no.” If students ask an open ended question, the teacher instructs them to reformulate the question so that it can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response.

  3. The teacher periodically helps students organize and review information discovered through the questioning process (step two). This helps focus the inquiry avoiding random and unproductive questioning.

  4. Once a student believes he/she has arrived at the best answer to the guiding question, the student is to announce, after being called upon, “I have a final answer.” The teacher should caution the student that an erroneous final answer will result in their elimination from this DEI. If the student still wants to proceed, he then presents his answer along with the train of thought that led to the response. (pp. 7-8)

So at the outset of a unit on the War of 1812, here is a DEI presentation that will foster a deeper understanding of the concept of secession:

Slide One:

Rules for the Discrepant Event Inquiry:

  1. Raise your hand to be recognized.

  2. Ask a single question about the DEI that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” 

  3. Listen carefully to other student questions and teacher answers; they will help you solve the puzzle (or guiding question).

  4. When you believe you have arrived at the best answer to the guiding question, announce you have a “final answer,” after being called upon. Present your final answer along with reasoning or evidence that you to this answer. Remember: an inaccurate final answer will result in your elimination from this DEI.

  5. You are competing with the other class periods, so this DEI will be timed. The class period that solves the DEI in the shortest amount of time wins!

Slide Two:

Read the speech excerpt below:

If a separation of the States ever should take place, it will be on some occasion when one portion of the country undertakes to control, to regulate, and to sacrifice the interest of another; when a small and heated majority in government . . . shall, by hasty . . . measures, threaten to destroy essential rights and lay waste the most important interests.

At the time of this speech (quoted above), which region of the United States was considering leaving the country and which major historical event had just begun?

Slide Three:

The answer to the DEI is:

New England and the War of 1812 

Daniel Webster, the Rockingham Memorial, August 5, 1812

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A final note about content: Historian H. W. Brands, has recently published Heirs of the Founders, which is a very interesting and informative historical account of the United States, from 1812 to 1852, as illuminated through the rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. For those teachers, like me, who have struggled helping students learn about the more abstract developments of this period, such as Henry Clay’s “American System,” “the Tariff of Abominations,” the Nullification Crisis, and the Second Bank of the United States, this historical treatment is an entertaining and helpful primer!

For more information about this Lesson Launch blog post, or if you are interested in arranging professional development or a speaking engagement, please contact the author at: theringoftruth@outlook.com


Paul BinfordComment