Bring President Lincoln to Life

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free." - Abraham Lincoln

By Linda Fitzsimmons Pierce

President Lincoln

President's Day will soon be here, and I thought it would be beneficial to take some time to focus on President Lincoln because I was so struck by the portrayal of him in the movie Lincoln. My neighbor is a Lincoln historian. As we sat on the porch in our rocking chairs the other day, I was able to ask this knowledgeable man question after question about President Lincoln. The information fascinated me and will do the same to your class if you hook them. So, how to hook them? 

Hook Pupils with Fascinating Facts

Here are a few tidbits of information to throw out:

  • President Lincoln is said to have spoiled his children tremendously. (Give some examples. Ask the kids if they have any ideas as to why he might have spoiled his children. What was Lincoln's childhood like?)
  • President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, lost three of their four sons to early death: one as an infant, one at age three, and one at eighteen. (What were the names of their sons? How did the loss of their children affect their lives?)
  • Mary Todd Lincoln was obsessed with money and spent huge amounts of money redecorating the White House and buying extravagant gowns while her husband was in office. (Was this accepted positively or negatively at the time? Was Mary Todd Lincoln a popular first lady or not?)
  • Years after the death of her husband, Mrs. Lincoln tried to sell off her gowns to make money. Her son, Robert, dissuaded her from doing so. (What other information can you find about Mary Todd Lincoln? Do you think she's been judged fairly by history?) 
  • President James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln in office, left the nation in quite a mess. South Carolina seceded from the Union a few months before Lincoln was inaugurated. Buchanan did nothing. (What did President Lincoln do to keep the United States from breaking up on the issue of slavery? Can you imagine what would have happened if states had been allowed to continue seceding from the Union? Give some background on James Buchanan and the change of inauguration date since Lincoln's time.)
  • President Lincoln often told stories and had a great sense of humor. (Give examples of his stories and humor at crucial times in the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment. What was the Thirteenth Amendment?)
  • While Lincoln's death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth will likely always be remembered as one of America's most heinous crimes, it should be recalled that Booth and his conspirators had two other targets that night: Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Even though technically the Civil War was over because Lee had already surrendered to Grant, Mr. Booth reasoned that if they could kill the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state all on one night, the Union would be thrown into disarray. And, with no formal right of succession, which wouldn't be codified in the Constitution until after the Kennedy assassination, Booth might have been right.

Investigative Reporters on the Life of Lincoln

Okay, so now you have your pupils interested. Here's your chance to go for educational depth. Have them become researchers and newspaper reporters.  

Separate your students into six groups. Each group will be responsible for researching one of the above six tidbits of information. You have many elements of intrigue. Set up a simple outline for the research and allow learners to dig into the facts with the goal of sharing them with the class on the Friday before President's Day.

Using newspaper reporters as their role models, your students will summarize their findings in the format of a newspaper article. Explain to them the purpose of a "lead" or a "hook" to grab their readers' interest. In the same top paragraph, they will need to include the answers to the following questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?

Model some leads and opening paragraphs with your class. Bring in newspapers for them to identify the leads in stories as well as the five W's and How? Your pupils will then be responsible for adding the supporting details in the next portion (and at least five paragraphs) of their news story.

If you have another class in your grade level, encourage your co-worker to investigate President George Washington with his/her pupils using the same outline for research. There are plenty of tidbits out there about Washington to pique learners' interests. Both classes can share their research in a President's Day Extravaganza.

Once you've set up your groups, give them all a copy of a research outline that will include the following instructions and questions:

  1. Write up your news story including the lead and answers to Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? in the opening paragraph. 
  2. Your news story must be at least six paragraphs long with solid research presented. 
  3. What are your sources of information? Do you think they are reliable? What makes you think so?
  4. You must use and cite at least four different sources for your research. It is okay to use websites if they are reliable sources. 
  5. Include one quotation by President Lincoln that your entire group agrees is important to be shared. You must be ready to share why you chose that particular quote. 
  6. All members of your group must memorize the Gettysburg Address and work with each other to help in the process. You will be responsible for reciting the Gettysburg Address on the big day.

What Makes a Reliable Source?

Before their beginning the project, have a class discussion about what they think would be a reliable source versus an unreliable source. Bring up examples of research topics and peruse the Internet, comparing and contrasting different sources of information and their reliability. As your pupils are researching, let them know that you are always available to discuss the reliability of their sources.

You can use this lesson to help your class discover how to understand and use primary and secondary sources. You can use the following lessons as springboards for class discussion or as extensions to the above activity.

Additional Lincoln Lesson Plans:

Who Freed the Slaves During the Civil War?

Learners analyze visual and textual evidence about "contraband" African-American slaves during the Civil War era. They compare the roles of African Americans, the Union military, and the policies of the Republican party in emancipating slaves. They determine the extent to which African Americans freed themselves versus the extent to which Abraham Lincoln ended slavery.

Lesson 2: The First Inaugural Address (1861)—Defending the American Union

This resource has pupils examine Lincoln's First Inaugural Address to understand why he thought his duty as president required him to treat secession as an act of rebellion and not as a legitimate legal or constitutional action by disgruntled states. 

The Unfinished Lincoln Memorial

Your learners will develop a list of images of President Abraham Lincoln, for example, self-taught youth, great debater, advocate of abolition of slavery, assassinated hero. Direct your class to investigate these images of Lincoln to see if they stand up under scrutiny.