Reenacting the Past: Ashbrook Teachers Learn How Democratic Deliberations Shape History

December 24, 2020

What if the Kentucky legislature had decided to secede from the Union in early 1861? Abraham Lincoln believed — and subsequent historians generally agree — that Kentucky’s secession might have changed the Civil War’s outcome. While it is necessary to understand the outcome of the debate, understanding how Kentuckians debated secession yields insights into the sectional divide that caused the war to begin.

High school teachers in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program this summer reenacted the Kentucky legislature’s deliberations over secession in a course on Sectionalism and Civil War. Ashland University Professor John Moser and Millikin University Professor Dan Monroe had their students play the game “Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation” from the “Reacting to the Past” series published by W. W. Norton. Moser serves on the editorial board for the series and attends yearly conferences where new simulations are tested.

Moser says simulation games spur students to do thorough research, especially as they read primary sources – the texts for all MAHG seminars. One teacher who took the course, Amy Parker of Gulf Breeze High School in Florida, agreed. She said, “Rather than simply reading and discussing primary sources, we had to read and use these documents to reach our character’s objectives. I found myself spending countless evenings researching possibilities for my character.” The game “fostered a deep understanding of history.” Parker plans to use a simulation of the American Revolution in her AP US history course this fall.

How Simulations Work

Each “player” in the Kentucky game received a role description. “Some were told that their character very much wanted secession, others that their character wanted to avoid secession at all costs,” Moser said. “A larger number were told that their character wanted to avoid secession yet preserve slavery — the dominant view in the Kentucky legislature in 1861. The game pushes many in the latter group to decide which of these two goals takes precedence.”

The teachers met in a mock legislature. Each made at least one formal speech and wrote an editorial that was circulated among players. Most entered the debate repeatedly. News reports brought by the student playing the role of Speaker of the House (Ray Tyler of York Preparatory School in York, SC) added pressure to come to a decision. For example, news that South Carolina had seized the federal installation at Fort Sumter came with reports of slave insurrections in Texas and notice of Lincoln’s request that states send regiments of volunteers to join the Union army. Teachers were divided into factional groups, and they earned points when their arguments to the legislature prevailed.

Competitive Design Pushes Learning

Moser said the teachers’ desire to win the game pushed them to closely examine writings “we find hard to understand today” — such as those of slave owners. “Historical simulation gives students ‘historical empathy’ for those whose views they don’t approve.” Teachers added that the game highlighted the public opinion Lincoln had to consider as he led the war effort. If he had signaled an intention to end slavery any earlier, he would have pushed more states to secede.

Although each “Reacting to the Past” game focuses on a single event, players must learn earlier history to play effectively, Moser says. “Teachers reenacting the Kentucky legislature in 1861 had to frame arguments based on decisions made at the Founding, and had to discuss the morality of slavery, a theme that goes back to America’s beginnings.”

At the end of the simulation, players voted to remain in the Union. It was “pretty darn close to what happened historically,” Moser said. Yet the outcome had been “overwhelmingly in favor of secession” when Moser first played the game with historians at a conference. The suspenseful ending of such games teaches another lesson:  citizens who engage in politics shape history.