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        Looking for Lincoln | Looking for Lincoln Views on Slavery: Lesson Plan

        This lesson, based on the PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln, examines Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery and race.

        Lesson Summary


        In this lesson, students examine Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery and race as they evolved throughout his early life and throughout his presidency. The lesson begins with students examining how aspects of American society and life have changed over the course of their lifetimes, as well as the reasons for change in their own personal lives. Students then review how Lincoln’s stance on slavery shifted over the course of his political career. Through an examination of historical quotations and primary source documents, students learn that the Emancipation Proclamation was the result of a complex and sometimes contradictory interplay of circumstances – some political, some personal, and some societal.

        Students watch segments from the PBS film Looking for Lincoln, read and analyze quotations from different historical figures on slavery and race, and utilize a web-based interactive timeline before creating a position paper outlining a response to a historian’s perspective on Lincoln and slavery. This lesson is best used as part of a unit on the American Civil War. Students should have a basic familiarity with Lincoln’s presidency and the Emancipation Proclamation prior to embarking on this lesson.


        Students will:

        • articulate causes of change at the personal and societal level;
        • summarize Lincoln’s changing views on slavery and race;
        • analyze historical quotations and appreciate historical perspectives;
        • synthesize a response to a historian’s perspective addressing Abraham Lincoln’s changing views on slavery.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        2 (45 minute) class periods

        Media Resources

        Lincoln's Early Views Video

        Was Lincoln a White Supremacist? Video

        The Road to Emancipation Video

        Lincoln's Growth and Change Video


        For the class:

        For each pair of students:

        For each student:

        Web Sites

        Interactive Timeline: Lincoln Over Time

        This interactive timeline game challenges students to place Lincoln images, documents, and quotations into the correct chronological order.

        Additional Websites for Extended Lesson

        Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

        Teaching American History Document Library – Lincoln Collection

        Before The Lesson

        Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

        The Lesson

        Introductory Activity

        1. Ask the class to think about the past year, and how life in the United States has changed over the past 12 months. Get the students to describe changes in the U.S. economy, politics, music, technology, or other areas of change. You may want to record students’ responses on the board.

        2. Review the list the class developed of changes that occurred over the last 12 months. Next, students will think about how things have changed over the course of their entire lifetimes.

        3. Divide the students into five groups. Assign one of the following topics to each group:

        • Clothing and hairstyles
        • Foods you enjoy
        • Ways of communicating (such as the Internet and telephones)
        • Language and popular expressions
        • Favorite music

        4. Ask each group to jot down ideas about how their specific topic has changed or evolved over the course of their lifetimes. How are things different now than they were earlier in their lives? Does anything from the past seem funny or strange now, and if so, what? Ask students to come up with as many specific examples as possible.

        5. Ask each group to report out on the changes and developments for their topic. Encourage the other groups to share additional ideas for each topic. After each group has reported out, turn the discussion to an examination of why these changes occurred. For example, were they the result of improving technology, trends taking off from movies and TV shows, the students’ growing older, the influence of advertising, or something else?

        6. Now the students will think specifically about changes in their own lives. Each student will consider how he or she has changed as an individual from the person they were five years ago, especially in terms of preferences, attitudes, and opinions. Ask each student to write down several sentences reflecting on how they have personally changed in the last five years.

        7. When everyone is done writing, ask a few students to share their responses. Also ask these students, and the class, to discuss some of the reasons the changes may have occurred. You may also want to share some of the changes you have experienced over the course of the last 5 years or your entire life.

        8. Explain that, as this activity demonstrates, people’s opinions, viewpoints, positions, and preferences commonly evolve and change over time. In the next activities, students will examine how an individual’s evolving viewpoints influenced American history.

        Learning Activity 1

        1. Have the class brainstorm what they know about Abraham Lincoln. For what is he remembered? What do they know about his life? You may wish to record class responses on the board.

        2. Ask the class to decide which of Lincoln’s actions or decisions have had the most enduring impact on American history. Guide your students to realize that two of Lincoln’s most significant contributions to American history are: a) the abolition of slavery and b) the saving of the Union.

        3. Review the major events and activities pertaining to the abolition of slavery during Lincoln’s lifetime – specifically highlighting the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the subsequent passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (signed by Lincoln in 1865).

        4. During Lincoln’s lifetime, there were numerous viewpoints and attitudes toward slavery. There were many critics of slavery’s abolition. The students will next examine a variety of historical quotations from Lincoln and others who lived at the same time, illustrating a wide variety of perspectives.

        5. Divide the students into pairs. Distribute the Who Said It? Student Organizer to each pair. Ask the students to identify the speaker of each quote. Some individuals may be associated with more than one quote. This is not a quiz and students will not be graded; however, they should use the information and clues presented in the quotes, as well as their knowledge of history, to make their best guess as to each quote’s speaker or writer.

        6. Once the students have completed the organizer, review each quote one at a time. Poll the class on their guesses for the speaker/writer of each quote and record the most popular answer on the board. Once you’ve tallied all the student answers, reveal the actual speakers and writers, from the provided Who Said It? Answer Key. Ask the students if there were any surprises, and point out some of the unexpected associations (Confederate leaders who spoke against slavery, racism in the quotes by abolitionists, and Lincoln’s varied and conflicting viewpoints on slavery and race).

        7. Ask the students to circle all the quotes from Abraham Lincoln. Do all these quotations agree with each other? Gather student opinions on why the quotes might be so different.

        Learning Activity 2

        1. Distribute the Looking for Lincoln's Views on Slavery - Video Organizer to each student. Frame the upcoming video segments by explaining they show Lincoln’s changing views on slavery.

        2. Provide your students with a media focus, asking them to watch each video segment, note facts they learn about Lincoln’s views on slavery in the second column of their organizer, and write a complete-sentence summary of Lincoln’s viewpoint as expressed in each video segment in the third column.

        3. Play Lincoln's Early Views. After the segment, give your students a few minutes to complete section 1 of the organizer. Ask your students what facts they learned about Lincoln’s views on slavery early in his administration (refer to the Looking for Lincoln's Views on Slavery - Answer Key for possible student answers).

        4. Frame the second segment: since his death, Lincoln has served a symbolic role in American history as the liberator of slaves. As we saw in the first video segment, Lincoln’s views on slavery were a bit more complex, and subject to changing interpretations over the years. In this segment, the students will see how different African Americans have regarded Lincoln’s attitudes towards slavery and race.

        5. Remind students to complete section 2 of the organizer as they watch the segment. Play Was Lincoln a White Supremacist? After giving your students a few minutes, review their answers.

        6. Ask students why Lincoln might have changed his views on ending slavery. What do they think was the decisive factor in the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation? PlayThe Road to Emancipation. After the segment has finished, give your students a few minutes to complete section 3.

        7. Explain to the students that between 1862-1865, Lincoln’s views on slavery and race had greatly changed. Play Lincoln's Growth and Change. After the segment has finished, allow your students to complete section 4 of the organizer.

        8. As a follow-up to the viewing of the video segments, review with your students what they’ve learned about Lincoln’s changing views on slavery and race. Ask your students if they think it is better to maintain one viewpoint or perspective, or to allow your viewpoints and perspectives to change and grow as you gain experience and knowledge. Remind students that recent politicians have been referred to as “flip floppers” when they change their opinions on key topics. Would Lincoln be viewed as a “flip flopper” if he were alive today? Why or why not? How has learning about Lincoln’s changing views on slavery influenced your ideas about politicians who change their minds or shift their viewpoints?

        Learning Activity 3

        1. Project the Interactive Timeline: Lincoln Over Time. Provide the students with a focus: based on their knowledge so far, the class will try to place six different quotations Lincoln made about race and slavery in the correct chronological order. As a class, go through the “Lincoln’s Views on Slavery” section of the interactive. Point out to students that Lincoln’s views did not progress in a clear evolution towards emancipation – his progression toward freeing the slaves took many twists and turns.

        2. Once the “Lincoln’s Views on Slavery” section has been completed, direct the students to computers, where they will complete the other sections of the timeline in small groups. Provide them with a focus, asking them to think about how Lincoln changed physically, professionally, and morally during his lifetime.

        3. Once everyone has completed all sections of the timeline, hold a discussion in class about some of the changes Lincoln underwent in his lifetime – professionally, physically, and morally.

        Culminating Activity

        1. Write the following two quotations on the board:

        • “You can’t defend Abraham Lincoln without defending slavery.” – Lerone Bennett
        • “Remembering is always about some degree of forgetting…The task is to keep reminding ourselves what is worth remembering.” – David Blight

        2. Remind the students that these are statements made by two historians featured in the video Was Lincoln a White Supremacist? Ask the students what they think each historian meant in his statement. (Lerone Bennett is disillusioned with the vision of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” and feels that Lincoln’s views on racial inequality and his inactivity during the abolitionist period should be remembered. David Blight’s statement acknowledges the conflicting views Lincoln held on the slavery issue, but suggests that his early views might not be as important a legacy as his later actions to free the slaves.)

        3. Assign students the following task:

        • Choose one of the two quotations on the board around which to frame a position paper. Using your chosen quote as a frame, write a 1-2 page essay supporting a position on how Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery should be remembered today.
        • In your essay, be sure to include a comprehensive discussion of Lincoln’s changing and conflicting views on slavery. Incorporate a minimum of three concrete examples supporting your position, such as quotations made by Lincoln (from the “Who said it” or timeline activities), events during Lincoln’s lifetime (from the timeline or video segments), and/or other facts about Lincoln you have learned from the activities completed in this lesson.

        4. If desired, you may direct students to conduct further research into Lincoln’s views on slavery prior to completing their assignment. Two useful sources of documents pertaining to Lincoln and slavery are below.

        Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

        Note: Using search terms such as “free slave” will help refine the students’ search.

        Teaching American History Document Library – Lincoln Collection

        5. Collect the students’ position papers for an assessment of the lesson.


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