Is the United States in 2022 more like the U.S. of 1858 or the U.S. of 1968?

SUBJECTS — U.S. History & Culture;



Age 15+; December 26, 2021, CNN; With discussion, one 50 minute class.

Note: To properly appreciate this lesson, students should have a basic understanding of the lead-up to the Civil War and the history of the last sixty years in the U.S.

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This Learning Guide was developed from an interview of historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham by Fahreed Zakaria that aired on the program “Global Public Square”, CNN, December 26, 2021.

Available on Hulu. Click here for a version of the transcript edited for presentation to classes. For those without Hulu, the first half of the interview is available at this link. For audio click here, it begins at 30 seconds through minute 26.12.





Fahreed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham.




Students will be exposed to an interesting question relating to the future of the USA and the breakdown of the American political and  constitutional system in the lead up to the Civil War.

Note: If you or your students come up with any good suggested responses to the questions posed in this Learning Guide, please email them to us. We will post them on a viewer discussion page.




Read the transcript with your child or listen to the audio of the interview. Discuss the issues that it raises. Get their opinion on the answers to the question on healing the divisions in our country so that they don’t rip us apart.


Historical Accuracy: The statements by the participants in the interview are historically accurate.


Check for prior knowledge about the events leading up to the Civil War and the last sixty years of American history.  Have the class watch the interview or read the transcript. Then hold a class discussion using any of the questions below. Afterward, give writing assignments as appropriate.


1. How would you describe what happened to the political system in the U.S. in 1858  – 1861?

Suggested Response:

Entire books have been written about this.   Some thoughts follow:  There are a number of ways to describe it.  The two party-system fractured. Many people in the South had decided that slavery was more important to them than the American union.  Many people in the North had come to realize that slavery could not be tolerated.  There was also a sense, however, that if the American democratic experiment failed, government of the people, by the people, and for the people, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, would perish from this earth.

One way to describe the situation is that people could not peacefully resolve their differences through the electoral process.  Another is that they decided that the differences between them were too great to remain associated in one country.  Yet another is that they abandoned the electoral system as a way for society to make decisions about the issues confronting them.

2. Describe American society in 1968?

Suggested Response:

It was deeply fractured.  The youth of the country were very unhappy with the condition of society.  The country was pursing an unpopular war.  In the last eight years one president (JFK), one presidential candidate (RFK) and the country’s greatest civil rights leader had been assassinated, the cities had erupted in violent riots, etc.

3.  Is the United States in 2022 more like the U.S. of 1858 or the U.S. of 1968?

Suggested Response:

Only time will tell. Interesting differences include:

Before the Civil War, the slave power held sway in Southern states, and powerful economic interests, both South and North, benefitted from the institution of slavery. The current situation is different. The resistance to the government while stronger in the South and parts of the West, is not as concentrated in one section of the country, as it was during the first 60 years of the 19th century.  In addition, there is no powerful economic institution, such as slavery, which benefitted large segments of the population. By 1968 the Civil War of 1861 had already occurred and it was conclusively established that states did not have the right to secede from the Union. In addition, the armament of the U.S. Army is more powerful than it was in 1858. Finally, there is now television, the 24-hours news cycle, and the Internet that affect the national consciousness in unexpected ways. This is just the beginning of the answer to this question.

There two-party system has largely ceased to function in that they parties are not able to compromise to govern the nation effectively.

Students will probably be able to come up with more.


4. Doris Kearns Goodwin said, “I think we have to learn from the 1850s. If you don’t start figuring out how to deal with [the] deepening divisions you’re going to end up with something like [the] Civil War.” How can we deal with the deepening divisions in current-day America?


Suggested Response:

The first step is to respectfully listen. The second is to seek common ground and be willing to compromise. This is more easily said than done.


5. Jon Meacham said,

[D]emocracy is really counterintuitive. . . It’s not the natural state of things. The natural state is find a strong guy, ally yourself with him so he will beat off the predators so you can get more food. Right? I mean, that’s it. This notion that we’re neighbors and we’re going to concede a little bit in the morning because we might need something in the afternoon, you know, the give and take [that’s not the natural state]. Do you agree or disagree? Justify your position. Give some examples.


Suggested response:

There is no one correct response. Many will disagree with Mr. Meacham. As Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out, on many occasions people have acted on the instructions of the better angels of their natures. Every single day in all parts of the country and all over the world people put themselves and risk or simply volunteer to help others and to support the greater good. Students should be encouraged to come up with their own examples.


6. Doris Kearns Goodwin said,

We have to remember all the difficult things that happened and how we were never at the ideal that we wanted to be. But we have to remember that great things happened as well. And great things happened in that crazy decade [of the 1960s.]  Name some ways in which current American society is not at the ideal we want it to be and how we can respond to that fact.


Suggested response:

Examples of defects will differ and each person will have his or her unique views about what constitutes a defect or weakness and what constitutes something positive or a strength. The goal is to have discussions in which differences are brought out and explained in a respectful way with a goal of understanding each position and coming to a
compromise so that we may agree where possible, disagree respectfully where we cannot, and come to a compromise when action is needed. In that process, the divisions in society will begin to heal.


7. Is the right to vote “the fundamental right on which all other rights depend?”
Justify your response.


Suggested Response:

The answer is “yes” because eventually, all officials with any power trace their election to the people (or to public officials appointed by the people). The preferences of the people are expressed through the ballot box.


8. Doris Kearns Goodwin points to the young people as being the hope for the future. And if an elder says to you that it is the youth that needs to organize and campaign for your beliefs and to protect the vote, what would you, as a young person say to that elder?


Suggested Response:

There is no one correct response, but a good response is, “Let’s do it together! There is strength in numbers. We all need to work together! Just because you are old, doesn’t let you give up and stand on the sidelines.”


9. What should you do if you don’t trust your government?


Suggested Response:

Get involved and become the government yourself or elect the people who are like-minded with you. File lawsuits to force the government to do the right thing. Then you can trust the government.




Each of the discussion questions can serve as an essay prompt.



Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.



Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.


Speaking and Listening:

Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.


Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.






Oakes, James, The Scorpion’s Sting — Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, W.W. Norton & Co., 2014.

This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and last updated on January 1, 2022.

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“The Scorpion Sting” as applied to slavery:

Before 1860, many abolitionists had a plan for ending slavery without war. It included the following: respect the constitutional right of the slave states to determine for themselves whether to permit or prohibit slavery; prevent the expansion of slavery into any new territory, specifically, the new territories of the West; encircle the slave states with a cordon of free territory; repeal or water-down the fugitive slave law so that slaves who reached free territory could not be arrested and returned to their masters; make Washington, D.C., an enclave bordering Maryland and Virginia, free territory; and cooperate with Great Britain in suppressing the already illegal transatlantic slave trade. The hope and prediction of the abolitionists was that within a few decades of the application of their policies by the federal government, slavery would die out and the Southern states would abolish it of their own accord. Oakes pp. 1 — 50.

By 1860, there was a popular metaphor by which Americans, North and South, described this plan. The metaphor was based on the myth (or perhaps it’s true) that if a scorpion is completely surrounded by fire, it will eventually sting itself in its head and die. Ibid. p. 25. Thus, in the words of Sherrard Clemens, a Congressman from Virginia, the plan was “to encircle the slave States of this Union with free States as a cordon of fire, and that slavery, like a scorpion, would sting itself to death.” Congressional Globe, 36th Cong., 1st Sesess., p. 586 quoted by Oakes at pp. 23 & 24.

While there is no record of Lincoln himself mentioning the Scorpion’s Sting (so far as TWM as been able to determine), his positions as a moderate Republican would stop the spread of slavery and slowly degrade the institution. The election of 1860 saw the first time that the federal government was under the control of a political party whose policies aggressively, if peacefully, sought the end of slavery. The leaders of the Slave Power agreed with the abolitionists that the policies of the Scorpion’s Sting would sap slavery of at least some of its vitality. The Slave Power saw that with the policies of the Scorpion’s Sting in place, the North’s advantages in numbers and manufacturing power would only grow. So, 1860 was the best time to resist. And, due to the superior leadership of its generals, such as Robert E. Lee, and the difficulty that the North had in finding generals who could match Southern military leadership, the Slave Power almost pulled it off.