Critical Lincoln Classroom Activity

My 5 step Critical-Thinking Activity about the 16th President of the United States

My US History students and I are exploring the Civil War and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. I wanted to challenge the students to take a closer look at the legend of Lincoln, to look beyond the hype and to decide for themselves, based on reliable evidence, just what kind of President Honest Abe was.

1   Primary and Secondary Source Analysis – Together, the students and I looked at a collection of quotes about Lincoln and/or by Lincoln, in addition I include a number of associated images and statistical data. Here are some examples:

“I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing [the Emancipation Proclamation],” he declared. “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

The Emancipation Proclamation did not affect every state. The law said that only slaves in those states “in rebellion against the United States” were free. So, only slaves in Confederate states were freed. Slaves who lived in other states – southern states who did not join the Confederates (such as Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware) – were not given their freedom.

There are several problems with the Emancipation Proclamation.  First, the Constitution does not include presidential war powers.  The President is not allowed to do anything just because it is a war. If he could, a President would have power without limits.

“I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

The students and I go through all the sources together. We discuss any new or unfamiliar vocabulary and explore the meanings and implications of the words, images and data.

2   Evaluation and Classification – As we discuss the words and other sources, the students are instructed to evaluate them and decide if they represent one of the following perspectives:

  • a pro-Lincoln point of view
  • an anti-Lincoln point of view
  • could be considered neutral – neither positive nor negative about Lincoln

I provide a chart for the students to record and explain their classifications. We do this one quote at a time (read aloud, analyze and classify) until all the historical sources are completed.

3   Question & Answers – Here, we address a number of seemingly random questions about the nature of tyranny, the need for the limitation of rights, and opinions about the actual Emancipation Proclamation wording. Here are the questions I ask:

Explain what a dictator/tyrant is – use a dictionary definition, plus your own ideas. Include some ideas or examples you might find in the textbook, or online. Make sure you list and explain the kinds of things a dictator might do.

The US Constitution lists all the rights that US citizens enjoy – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Religion, the right to own a gun, the right of habeas corpus, etc. Is there ever a time or situation when the government should be able to take away or cancel any rights? Explain.

What do you think of the Emancipation Proclamation? It is pretty famous. But, was it a good law? What is your opinion? What would you do to change it?

You could assign these questions to the students and then collect them, for evaluation later. I opt to have the students note down their ideas and then discuss them immediately upon completion. They always lead to a lively discussion.

The purpose of the questions is to spark connections in the minds of the students about Lincoln and some of his deeds/words during the Civil War. For instance, a student might answer the tyranny question by stating something along the lines of “A dictator is likely to create laws without the approval of others.” This sparks a discussion about the Emancipation Proclamation as an Executive Order and not an act of Congress, how the proclamation did not apply to all slaves states, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the use of martial law, etc.

4   Writing Assignment – The next step in this process is the writing assignment. Traditionally, I ask students to write a short essay about Lincoln. The students must argue for one of the following ideas: a) Abraham Lincoln was a great President whose loss was a negative one for the nation (ie Pro-Lincoln).  Or, b) Abraham Lincoln was a potential dictator, who needed to be removed from office before he did significant harm to the United States (ie, Anti-Lincoln).

What’s handy for students is the proof they need to support one of the two above ideas are found within the process itself. They have pages of historical source material to use as evidence. And, they have a handy dandy chart that shows them which of them are pro and which are anti-Lincoln.

This year, to offer students more choice, I provided two additional options for the writing activity:

Wikipedia article – Currently, the Wikipedia page about Abraham Lincoln contains no specific paragraph about the possible dangers that Lincoln’s decisions and actions represent. Write a paragraph  for the Lincoln Wikipedia page that outlines some of Lincoln’s questionable actions/words. Make sure your work reflects the Wikipedia style of writing.

(Bonus – here I promised that students would examine all the work written for this particular option and then choose one that we would submit it to Wikipedia for their approval and inclusion. Talk about relevance and engagement!)

Creative Writing – Imagine that time travel exists. You decide to travel back to April, 1865 and prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Outline your plan. It should contain details about the life and times of Lincoln as we explored them. Mention some of the dates, characters, situations we now know about – Lincoln’s height, his wife and family, his habits, people who work with him, places he went, etc. In addition, your paper should include details about how the history of the United States changed as a result of saving Lincoln.

One of my students commented that they always understood that Lincoln was one of the greatest US Presidents. But, after the work above, they were no longer sure. I loved this as it demonstrated to me that students the activity was encouraging students to do exactly what I wanted them to do – to think for themselves.

5   Reflection & Connection – To wrap up the activity, I wanted the students to extend their thinking beyond Lincoln and consider who else in history/pop culture enjoys a great reputation but may not be as great as everyone believes. This step was added as a critical-thinking piece, to challenge students to engage their analytical and evaluative skills. Students wrote their answer in their notes and, after a few minutes (where I strolled around the room) I invited students to share their thoughts. Wow, some interesting ideas were presented!

History/posterity has a tendency to lionize certain individuals and gloss over their shortcomings. Rather than simply accepting the ideas/opinions of others at face value, I like to challenge students to think for themselves – conduct their own examinations and develop their own opinions. Students may end up in the same place where they started, but as least they got their on their own!

I would love to hear your comments and suggestions!

Hi 5!

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