Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Abraham Lincoln and Wartime Politics

A We The People Resource
Created July 17, 2010


The Lesson


The re-election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1864

The re-election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1864 was by no means certain, and hinged on the outcome of events in the ongoing civil war.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

While armies clashed on battlefields from Virginia to Tennessee, partisan politics continued in Washington DC. At the beginning of the war Northerners, both Republicans and Democrats, joined together in support of the Union. It was not long, however, before old animosities found their way to the surface as members of both parties jockeyed for political advantage. Congress—as well as the nation at large—hotly debated issues related to President Lincoln's handling of the war. This lesson will look at these issues and examine Abraham Lincoln's role as a wartime president. Through an examination of primary documents, students will focus on Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, the Emancipation Proclamation, his decision to arm the freed slaves, his refusal to accept a compromise peace with the South, and the election of 1864.

Guiding Questions

  • Did Lincoln's performance as a wartime president during his first term of office justify his reelection in 1864?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lesson, students should be able to

  • Argue whether it was necessary for Abraham Lincoln to suspend habeas corpus.
  • Assess whether the Emancipation Proclamation was sound wartime policy.
  • Explain why the decision to arm slaves was so controversial in the North.
  • Evaluate Lincoln's refusal to conclude a compromise peace with the Confederacy.
  • Identify the major issues in the 1864 presidential election, and make an overall judgment as to whether Lincoln deserved a second term.


While fighting raged on the battlefields of Virginia, Tennessee, and elsewhere, there were other important battles occurring in Washington, DC. Both in the North and in the South, various political issues had a direct impact on the war.

Immediately upon assuming office, President Abraham Lincoln faced the unprecedented challenge of the secession of the Southern states. Equally distressing, but often not as open, were the vocal protests of some in the North against the war. Some of these opponents sought to undermine the war effort by interfering with recruitment and encouraging soldiers to desert. One of Lincoln's most controversial tactics in dealing with these protesters was his suspension of the right of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is the right to appear before a judge in a timely manner in order to prevent illegal imprisonment. Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, permitted officials to arrest suspected Confederate agents and hold them indefinitely without formal charges being filed against them. Lincoln defended this suspension by citing Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which states that "in cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require" the writ to be suspended. However, this did not quiet his critics. During the course of the war over 14,000 citizens were arrested. Most of those arrested were from the Border States, especially Maryland, the home state of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and were detained for trading with the enemy, evading the draft, or running the Union blockade of southern ports. When Taney suggested that Lincoln did not have the constitutional authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, Lincoln threatened to jail Taney and neutralize the Supreme Court itself.

In addition to suspending the writ of habeas corpus, the question of slavery also plagued Lincoln's administration from the start of the war. Not only was this a sensitive subject for the nation, but for Lincoln as well. Although Lincoln personally detested the "peculiar institution," he recognized that the federal government did not have the constitutional authority to abolish it where it already existed. This was a matter left to the states. Additionally, Lincoln saw his primary goal of the war to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves, although saving the Union offered the possibility that slavery could be ended. At the end of 1862, Lincoln decided to attack the South's social system, which, among other things, supported the Confederate war effort. After all, slaves were used to build fortifications, repair roads, and grow food for the rebel forces. Lincoln came to the conclusion that a constitutionally acceptable way to attack the Southern social and economic system was to invoke his authority as commander in chief and emancipate slaves in rebel states. This decision also played a strategic role in thwarting the Confederacy's attempt to achieve foreign recognition. For instance, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln hoped to discourage Great Britain, where slavery had been abolished in 1833 and where there was strong abolitionist sentiment, from supporting the Confederacy. Emancipation was both a moral issue and a weapon of war.

Another important issue was whether or not to arm the slaves freed by Union forces as they invaded the South, as well as freedmen in the North. The decision to do so was a controversial one, as many whites—no matter what their view of slavery—did not relish the thought of blacks bearing weapons, fearing reprisals from armed former slaves resentful for their previous forced servitude. Some of Lincoln's opponents suggested that Lincoln had only issued the Emancipation Proclamation in order to use freed slaves to reinforce his dwindling army.

As the material and human costs of the war mounted, there were those in the North who began to clamor for peace. Some Northern Democrats, whom Republicans called "Copperheads" after a particular species of venomous snake, advocated peace with the South, even at the cost of recognizing the independence of the Confederacy. A few, such as Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham, ended up in jail for urging Union soldiers to desert. Throughout the war, however, Lincoln refused to consider peace on any terms short of complete restoration of the Union.

In the midst of this bloody war, the United States held one of the most momentous elections in its history. If Lincoln won a second term, he would have an opportunity to fulfill his wartime goals of restoring the Union and the freeing the slaves. However, a victory for his challenger, George B. McClellan (former commander of the Union's armies), would most likely have brought about some sort of negotiated settlement with the South—one that almost certainly would have involved legal protections for slavery. The heavy losses suffered by Union forces in recent months, as well as the failure to take Richmond, led many Northerners to consider voting for McClellan. However, the fall of Atlanta in September 1864 gave Lincoln a much-needed boost, and on Election Day he won with 55 percent of the vote. The Republican Party interpreted this victory as a mandate to end slavery, not only in the states in rebellion, but in all of America. In early 1865 Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed the "peculiar institution" once and for all. For more information about the Election of 1864, see "Lincoln, Grant and the 1864 Election", which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the National Park Service.

For more information concerning home front issues during the war, consult the Time Line of the Civil War which is located on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource American Memory.

Preparation Instructions

Two activities accompany this lesson. Review the activities, making sure to bookmark websites that you will use. Remember to download and print out the documents necessary for the activities. You will also need to print out the corresponding worksheets from the Text Document that accompanies this lesson, making enough copies for the entire class.

In addition, if your students need assistance with primary source documents, the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites may be useful:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Political Challenges of War

In this activity, students will read documents concerning four controversial decisions that Lincoln made during the first term of his presidency: his suspension of habeas corpus, his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, his refusal to consider a compromise peace with the South, and his decision to arm former slaves. For each of these presidential actions students will read at least one document that supports Lincoln, and at least one that opposes him. All of the following documents are located at the EDSITEment-reviewed resources Teaching American History and the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress, and the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site Lincoln/Net. They are available in excerpted form on pages 1-15 of the PDF Document "Political Challenges of War."

Begin by dividing the class into four groups, one for each issue. Hand out each group the documents, which are listed below, that they are to read. These documents can either be read for homework or during class, depending on available time.

Group One: The Suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus (pages 1-5 of the PDF Document "Political Challenges of the War")

Group Two: The Emancipation Proclamation (pages 6-9 of the PDF Document "Political Challenges of the War")

Group Three: Arming the Freed Slaves (pages 10-13 of the PDF Document "Political Challenges of the War")

Group Four: Lincoln's Refusal to Conclude a Compromise Peace (pages 14-16 of the PDF Document "Political Challenges of the War")

At the beginning of class the next day, have students break into their large groups. Give students approximately ten minutes to discuss the key points of their documents. You may wish to walk around and ensure that students are grasping the key ideas. Then, further divide the larger group into pairs. Within each pair of students, one will be responsible for defending Lincoln's view, while the other will be responsible for criticizing that view. Students will then have a silent debate with their partner on the effectiveness of Lincoln's presidency. Hand out the silent debate forms for each group, located on pages 17-20 of the Text Document. Students are to follow the directions on the debate form. Allow approximately 15 minutes for students to debate with their partner before bringing the class back together.

Conclude this lesson by having students assemble again in their groups to share their findings from their silent debates. Each group should then prepare a brief (five-minute) presentation on their particular issue, in which they lay out the arguments both for and against Lincoln's position.

Activity 2. The Election of 1864

In the midst of the war and all of these political tensions, the North held one of the most critical presidential elections in all of U.S. history. Had Lincoln lost the election to the Democrats, the result would most likely have been a negotiated settlement to end the war. In this activity, students will examine the key issues in the 1864 election as they stage a mock presidential campaign.

Break students into two groups: Democrats and Republicans. If you are using both activities in this lesson, the Democrats should be those who were against Lincoln's policies in Activity one, and the Republicans should be those who were for Lincoln's policies. Explain to them that it is October 1864 and they are going to hold a presidential debate between Lincoln and McClellan. Each group should then select students to fill the following roles:

  • Candidate (portraying Lincoln or McClellan in the debate)
  • Campaign Manager (overseeing the team's activities)
  • Speechwriter(s) (drafting the candidate's opening speech)
  • Intro Speaker(s) (introducing the candidate)
  • Question writer(s) (drafting questions to be asked of the opposing candidate)
  • Publicists (producing flyers and other campaign materials)

Once students have selected their roles, hand out the corresponding role sheets from the PDF Document "The Election of 1864" (pages1-6), which will explain each team member's responsibilities. It may be helpful for students to look at an interactive map of the Civil War—available at Teaching American History—so that they are reminded of the overall military situation in 1864. Instruct students to click on the box "1863-1865" in the upper left-hand corner.

Next, print and hand out the corresponding documents to each group. Students should read the documents for homework and make a list of issues and political ideas involved in this election. The following are available at Teaching American History and at the EDSITEment-reviewed site HarpWeek.

Republican Party Documents: Abraham Lincoln

Democratic Party Documents: George B. McClellan

When students return the next day, give them time to work in their groups to prepare for the debate. One class period should be sufficient as long as students are diligently working. You may want to assemble materials (poster board, markers, etc.) for the publicists to work with. Remind students that all necessary materials should be completed prior to the beginning of the next class.

The debate itself should take place during the following class session, with students assuming their assigned roles and the teacher serving as moderator. Each team's question writers should submit their questions to the moderator before the start of the debate. The Democratic team may introduce their speaker first, followed by the Republican team. Each candidate, once introduced, may make his opening speech. Once the opening speeches are concluded, the teacher will ask the pre-written questions to each of the candidates. After a candidate has been given a chance to answer a question, his opponent may then have a chance to respond.

At the end of the class, you may wish to have the students list on the board the key issues of the election of 1864, and why that election was so critical.


Teachers may use the debates from both activities as formal assessment measures.

Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to write a five-paragraph essay in response to the following question:

  • Based on Abraham Lincoln's performance in his first term, do you think that he deserved to be reelected in 1864?

Students should also be able to identify the following:

  • Ex Parte Merryman
  • George McClellan
  • Election of 1864
  • Habeas Corpus
  • Emancipation Proclamation

Extending The Lesson

In the midst of the Civil War the country experienced one of the worst episodes of domestic violence in its history. In New York City poor whites, many of whom were Irish immigrants, rampaged through the streets in protest against the draft, directing their anger at black citizens, whom they blamed for the draft. Teachers may wish to have their students learn about this incident by reading "If it were not for my trust in Christ I do not know how I could have endured it," a collection of accounts by victims of the riots. This may be found at EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters. After students have read the accounts, have them discuss how they think that this type of violence could affect the war. Would this make people support or protest the war? Does this event challenge or support the notion that certain civil liberties (i.e., habeas corpus) should be suspended in time of war?

Just as in the North, Southern politics were dominated by the demands of the Civil War. One recurring issue was the question of the purpose of the war—was it primarily to protect slavery, or to win independence? Several documents on this debate are available at Teaching American History:

Teachers might have students read these in small groups, then have them teach the documents to the others. This could serve as the framework for a discussion of whether or not slavery was the real cause of the Civil War.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > People
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Religion
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources