Closer Readings Commentary

Teaching Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln in 1846On February 12 we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), one of the greatest heroes in our nation’s history. From the most humble origins, he worked his way up the ladder from farm boy, to store keeper, to state legislator, to country lawyer, to U.S. congressman, and finally to the highest office in the land. A month after his election as president, South Carolina seceded from the Union. President Lincoln's decision to forcibly prevent the southern states from leaving the Union triggered a conflict that would leave nearly a million Americans dead or wounded, four million slaves free, and a nation changed forever.

The years in which Lincoln served as president, 1861–1865, were the most momentous in the nation's history. As commander-in-chief, he rallied Northern armies to victory over the South. In his speeches prior to the Civil War, Lincoln returned again and again to the principles of the Declaration of Independence to show the American people (and the world) that slavery was a profound denial of the natural rights of black people. In his speeches as wartime leader he used these same principles to illuminate the responsibility of a free people to the cause of republican self government. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.

A Range of Lesson Plans

Lincoln, 1854In this Spotlight, EDSITEment showcases a range of lessons, student interactives, and multimedia-rich Web sites that will help teachers, students, parents, and caregivers understand the world Lincoln lived in and the impact he had upon it. We have also included NEH-sponsored programs, exhibits, and professional development opportunities for teachers

Generations of Americans and people of all countries have viewed Lincoln as a remarkable statesman. What are the political and personal qualities that underlie this judgment? In the annual Jefferson Lecture given for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the distinguished Civil War historian James McPherson considered this question in “Abraham Lincoln and the Millennium,” and in 2004, another Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer, gave his answer in “Abraham Lincoln, American Hero.”

Lincoln, 1857Although he never went to high school, Lincoln was an avid reader. He taught himself law from books and became a very successful, mid-19th century trial lawyer. In Terrific in Denunciation: Taking a New Look at Lincoln as Lawyer Douglas L. Wilson offers vivid examples of the persuasive techniques Lincoln employed in the courtroom to win juries over to his clients. Wilson also reports on the NEH-funded Legal Papers of Abraham Lincoln, an online archive that provides scholars and students a wealth of hitherto unavailable Lincoln material. For a full online multimedia biography of Lincoln up through this period, consult Lincoln/Net, an NEH-funded website.


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America Before to the Civil War

What was America like in the 1830s when Lincoln was coming of age politically? During these years, political events and regional economics produced an alarming split between free and slaveholding states. Heated debates over the abolition of slavery and the powers of the federal government to deal with it characterized American politics. The EDSITEment unit, A House Dividing the Growing Crisis of Sectionalism in Antebellum America, introduces students to these developments that grew out of the growing dependence upon — and defense of — black slavery in the southern states.

Lincoln, 1860What kind of a person would defend slavery and why? Who were the leading advocates of slavery and who were the leading abolitionists? What were their arguments? The EDSITEment lesson, Slavery’s Opponents and Defenders, exposes students to the wide ranging debates over slavery through the arguments of two of the leading abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and two of slavery’s advocates, John C. Calhoun and George Fitzhugh.

In another lesson, The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: Popular Sovereignty and the Political Polarization over Slavery, students examine the act that repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened the heartland west of the Mississippi to the expansion of slavery. The lesson contrasts Stephen Douglas’s policy of “popular sovereignty” as an effort to avoid a national crisis over slavery in the territories with Lincoln's counter-argument that both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution committed the national government to extending freedom, not slavery.

Lincoln, engraving, 1860The Kansas-Nebraska Act altered the political balance between free and slave states and drove Lincoln from his comfortable and lucrative law practice back into national politics. In Abraham Lincoln, the 1860 Election, and the Future of American Slavery, students examine the alternatives available to politicians regarding the spread of slavery and the preservation of the American union in the decade leading up to the presidential election of 1860. (For a full online biography of Lincoln up through this period, consult Lincoln/Net, an NEH-funded website).

The secession of the southern states and President Lincoln's decision to prevent them forcibly from leaving the Union triggered the most traumatic event in the nation's history. The EDSITEment curriculum unit, The American Civil War: A “Terrible Swift Sword,” introduces students to some of the most important questions pertaining to the war, beginning with a review of the strengths and weaknesses of each side at the start of the conflict.


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On the Eve of War

The decision-making process that precipitated the Civil War is a fascinating subject and the focus of Lincoln Goes to War. In this lesson, students examine the deliberations within the Lincoln administration that led to the defense of Fort Sumter from Confederate attack in April 1861. In another, The Battles of the Civil War, students use interactive maps and original documents to study the key battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg and see how they contributed to the Northern victory.

While armies clashed on battlefields from Pennsylvania to Louisiana, partisan politics continued in Washington, DC. Congress — as well as the nation at large — hotly debated issues related to the president's handling of the war. Abraham Lincoln and Wartime Politics examines the controversies arising from Lincoln’s role as a wartime president. Students examine the result that the stresses and strains of this conflict had on Lincoln by examining Alexander Gardner photograph of the president, taken a few months before his assassination. Gardner’s famous photograph is part of a new EDSITEment lesson, Picture Lincoln, which is built around the rich significance of this image.

The Great Persuader

Lincoln in Springfield, 1860Lincoln was not only a successful war leader and spell binding orator; he was also a persuasive thinker, who, in a time of confusion, returned to the principles of the Declaration of Independence to illuminate the essence of his era's controversies. The EDSITEment unit, A Word Fitly Spoken: Abraham Lincoln on Union, explores this rich vein of political reflections on the subject of American national union. By examining Lincoln's three most famous speeches — the Gettysburg Address, the First and Second Inaugural Addresses, and a little known fragment on the Constitution, union, and liberty, students trace what these documents say regarding the importance of the Union for the future of republican self-government.


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Featured Websites

The following EDSITEment-reviewed websites offer excellent resources on Lincoln for teachers and students.


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Commemorations and Articles

Lincoln postage stampIn summer 2009 NEH funded two one-week workshops for teachers on Abraham Lincoln and the Forging of Modern America through its Landmarks in American History and Culture program. In these workshops, teachers investigated the factors influencing Lincoln and the modern era that followed his presidency. These workshops took place at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) and nearby historic sites associated with Abraham Lincoln in and around Springfield, Illinois. Opportunity for participants to engage in rich scholarly discussion included lectures and interactive discussions with two noted Lincoln scholars, and they traveled to several historic Lincoln landmarks in Springfield. A museum studies expert and an African American historian provide additional lectures.

The January/February, 2009 issue of Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, featured articles on Lincoln by Wilfred Mc Clay and Anna Maria Gillis. Lewis Lehrman the author of Lincoln in Peoria was interviewed in an earlier issue.

Finally, NEH supports Lincoln in American Memory, a joint project of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute and Library of America, which provides five free booklets and other materials for reading groups dedicated to Lincoln.

NEH offers numerous opportunities for all ages to learn more about this great leader. Be sure to sample some of these as you plan your teaching around the celebration of Lincoln’s Bicentennial.

Lincoln-Related Interactive Media

Interactive assessment and knowledge reinforcement tools developed by EDSITEment and its partners.


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