This unit explores the political thought of Abraham Lincoln on the subject of American union. For him, the union was not just a structure to govern the national interests of American states; it also represented a consensus about the future of freedom in America—a future where slavery would eventually be eliminated and liberty protected as the birthright of every human being. Students will examine Lincoln's three most famous speeches—the Gettysburg Address and the First and Second Inaugural Addresses—in addition to a little known fragment on the Constitution, union, and liberty to see what they say regarding the significance of union to the prospects for American self-government.
Although Lincoln did not attend high school or college, he possessed a logical and inquisitive mind that found clarity in working out legal and political problems on paper. One fragment he wrote after the 1860 presidential election addressed how the Constitution and union were informed by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln wrote that while America's prosperity was dependent upon the union of the states, "the primary cause" was the principle of "Liberty to all." He believed this central ideal of free government embraced all human beings, and concluded that the American revolution would not have succeeded if its goal was "a mere change of masters." For Lincoln, union meant a particular kind of government of the states, one whose equality principle "clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all."
As president of the United States, Lincoln used his First and Second Inaugural Addresses to explore the meaning of the American union in the face of a divided country. Upon assuming the presidency for the first time, he spoke at length about the nature of union, why secession was antithetical to self-government, and how the federal constitution imposed a duty upon him to defend the union of the states from rebellious citizens. When he was reelected four years later, and as the Civil War drew to a close, Lincoln transcended both Northern triumphalism and Southern defiance by offering a providential reading of the war and emancipation in hopes of reuniting the country.
In his most famous speech, delivered upon the dedication of a national cemetery at the battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln gave a brief but profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union. With the Emancipation Proclamation as a new and pivotal development of the federal war effort, Lincoln sought to explain why the war to preserve the Union had to become a war to secure the freedom of former slaves. The nation would need to experience "a new birth of freedom" so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Upon completing this unit, students should have a better understanding of why Lincoln revered the union of the American states as "the last best, hope of earth."
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.
Each lesson in this unit is designed to stand alone; taken together they present a robust portrait of how Lincoln viewed the American union. If there is not sufficient time to use all four lessons in the unit, either the first or third lesson convey Lincoln's understanding of the American union as a means to securing "Liberty to all"—with the first lesson focusing on the principled connection between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and the third lesson addressing the practical connection between the Union war effort, the freedom of the newly emancipated slaves, and the preservation of American self-government. Adding the second lesson would show why Lincoln's understanding of the union and Constitution obliged the president to defend the nation from secession. Adding the fourth lesson would explore how Lincoln thought that only a common memory of the war as the chastening of God to both sides for the national (not Southern) sin of slavery could restore national unity.
As the Civil War drew to a close, the social, political and economic conditions within the rebellious southern states fueled discussion about how to restore them to the Union. This series of lesson plans will examine the nature and extent of some of these social, political and economic conditions and how they worked to shape the debate about restoring southern states to the Union as well as their lasting impact in shaping the national debate in the years following Reconstruction.
Beyond the obvious material destruction, there was more to reconstruct in the South than buildings, farms, manufacturing and railroads—there were social and political relationships to rebuild. Yet, it is impossible to understand Reconstruction fully without a grasp of the social and economic upheaval the war brought with it. For the people living through the times, this upheaval created a situation that demanded immediate attention. Economically, the South had been shattered, with much of its capital—formerly invested in slaves—lost. Fields remained untilled and fallow. Capital that during the war had been invested in manufacturing to a much larger extent than it had been before the war, was now laid to waste with many of the South’s factories in ruins. Beyond these tangible losses there was the devastating cost in human life. More than one-fifth of the South’s adult white male population (some 260,000) was lost fighting for the Confederacy. In addition, the great majority of black soldiers who had fought and died in the Union army were from the South. Its losses in manpower, therefore, was monumental.
Another consideration in post-bellum America was a new question for southern society: What would be the role of the newly freed black population of the South? What would be the social relationship between this new community and its former white masters? The South faced a newly freed workforce that grew more and more recalcitrant, refusing to work for former masters (very often with good cause), whatever the pay. Old habits of social interaction had to be reconsidered and, most often, unlearned. Thus, even if the South could quickly show some signs of economic recovery, solving the problems posed by social reconstruction would prove to be a much more difficult and lengthy proposition.
The political process of Reconstruction, on the other hand, had begun before the war ended. In some states—like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana—where earlier Union victories had been so complete as to take them out of the Confederacy for practical purposes, the populations had already taken steps in the direction of re-establishing former relations with the Union. For Abraham Lincoln, it was impossible to separate Reconstruction policy from war policy. Reunification was the central object of the war for Lincoln. Because of that, Lincoln believed that a swift procedure for Reconstruction—taking place, in effect, as Union victories gradually spread throughout the South—would aid in the effort to bring the war to a speedy end. In order to encourage a speedy process of Reconstruction, Lincoln argued for generous terms of amnesty to former rebels and encouraged lenient processes for restoring states to their former relations with the Union.
Many in Congress, however, had a different view. Upon receiving Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” these members were indignant. Apart from the content, which a number viewed as too gentle toward the South, some legislators argued that Lincoln’s proclamation flew in the face of Congress’ presumed sovereignty in the matter. Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania argued that Lincoln’s plan for allowing only 10% of a state’s electorate to put forward a constitution was contrary to democratic theory and the principle of majority rule. Further, many members argued that the states joining the Confederacy had, in effect, “committed suicide” and had to be re-established from the ground up in the same way territories or conquered foreign lands would be organized.
Whatever virtues there were in Lincoln’s less strident and less specific plan for Reconstruction, however, may also have contributed to its weakness. Because its success depended so much on Lincoln’s own judgment, discretion, and persuasive abilities, his assassination on April 14, 1865 was a devastating loss to its operation. Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, shared Lincoln’s view that reconstruction ought to be directed from the White House, but he lacked much of Lincoln’s political savvy and understanding and shared almost none of his forgiving nature or charm with the people.
After the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the ascendancy of Congress in directing Reconstruction policy, the realities of enforcing their well-meaning goals soon dimmed the enthusiasm of many Republicans. Though Republicans made quick and huge political gains in the South as newly enfranchised black voters rushed to their support, it was clear that the party and its ideals of peace through racial and sectional harmony on Republican terms remained unpopular with large segments of the population—particularly with those who were disenfranchised because they could not take the “oath” or otherwise prove their loyalty to the Union. This meant that the huge majorities Republicans then enjoyed were, so to speak, operating on borrowed time.
Southern governments frequently were in the hands of political novices: for example, inexperienced (and sometimes illiterate) freedmen and—worse yet, from the point of view of many Southern loyalists—Northerners who had moved south in the wake of war to assist in the recovery effort. These conditions made it quite difficult for the Republican Party to get much of a foothold in the South among any except black voters and those who had relocated from the North. It also made it difficult to enforce Republican plans for Reconstruction and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.
As resistance and violence continued to spread in the South, Republican resolve began to weaken. Maintaining a visible and active presence of Union troops in the South to facilitate the peaceful operation of government and Reconstruction was expensive and frustrating to many in Congress. Moreover, the horrors of the late war were alive in the memories of most Americans and the real or imagined threat of resumed and open hostilities operated with more persuasive force than the best of arguments.
President Ulysses S. Grant had been elected partly because he seemed to show promise of strong executive leadership, but also because he was viewed in the afterglow of his wartime success. But in his first showdown with Congress upon being elected, Grant backed down and accepted a compromise proposal with the Senate even after the House had voted to join him in his opposition to the Tenure of Office Act. This show of weakness seemed to set the tone for Grant’s administration (1869-77) which, though it seemed to offer some promise to restore order and sanity to the South, actually accomplished very little in this realm.
In part, Grant’s administration suffered because of some real and some exaggerated charges of corruption—most of which did not directly involve Grant but tarnished him (and, eventually, Congress) nonetheless. The impact of scandal on the national political debate was real. It contributed to a chastening of Republican ambitions in the South and forced the party to concentrate on maintaining its base of support in the North rather than growing the party in Dixie. This helped to shape the national political debate for generations.
The “official” era of Reconstruction came to a close with the Compromise of 1877. In that “compromise,” Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won a tight race for the Presidency with just one electoral vote—on the condition that all federal troops be removed from the South and a southern Democrat be named to his cabinet.
In all, the history of Reconstruction was an object lesson in the limitations of persuasion in politics—as was the history of the Civil War that preceded it. The great political battles of the era were full of interesting reflections and assertions about the nature and purpose of America and American government. The passage of the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights legislation were great victories for the advocates of equality under the law. But in the end, events overpowered the best thinking on both sides of this divide and the impact of these great victories was left to be felt and interpreted by a new generation of Americans. Much of the legislation enacted in the name of racial equality was to be undone in the coming years by rulings coming from the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson, The Civil Rights Cases, etc.) and then to be taken up again in the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century. In many ways, we continue these struggles in our politics today.
Review the lesson plans in the unit. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF files.
Download the Text Documents for the lessons, available as PDFs. These files contain excerpted versions of the documents used in each lesson, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
Finally, familiarize yourself with the interactive maps and timeline that accompany this lesson. The interactive maps explore the impact of the war and Reconstruction on the South, while the interactive timeline examines the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and his troubles with the Congress. These interactives are incorporated into several of the activities for this lesson.
Analyzing primary sources: If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.
Whether it be called the Civil War, the War between the States, the War of the Rebellion, or the War for Southern Independence, the events of the years 1861-1865 were the most traumatic in the nation's history. The secession of the southern states, and President Lincoln's decision to prevent them forcibly from leaving the Union, triggered a conflict that would see fighting on battlefields as far apart as Pennsylvania and Texas, Missouri and Florida, and would leave nearly a million Americans on both sides dead or wounded. Indeed, casualties in the Civil War exceeded those of every other war in which the United States has ever participated, combined.
But the sheer costs of the war were matched by its importance. It was fought over two basic questions-whether it was legal under the U.S. Constitution for a state to leave the constitution, and whether the practice of chattel slavery was consistent with the nation's founding principles. The Union victory established that the answer to both questions was no.
This curriculum unit will introduce students to several important questions pertaining to the war. In the first, they will examine original documents and statistics in an attempt to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each side at the start of the conflict. The second addresses the two turning points of the war-the concurrent battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg-as well as the morality of the Union's use of "total war" tactics against the population of the South. Finally, in the third lesson students will examine a series of case studies in Abraham Lincoln's wartime leadership; by using primary sources they will be asked to assess whether, based on his performance during his first term of office, he deserved a second.
Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF, such as this one for Lesson Plan One.
Download the Text Documents for each lesson, available as PDFs, such as this one for Lesson Plan One. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.