Abraham Lincoln: A Unit Study

Abraham Lincoln: A Unit Study
Abraham Lincoln: A Unit Study

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hodgenville, Kentucky. His family roamed a bit throughout his childhood, first moving to Indiana and then to Illinois. Poverty was a constant antagonist, and from an early age Lincoln learned to work. Helping his father on the farm in remote areas did not give him many opportunities to pursue a formal education, but young Lincoln was not daunted by this. Instead, he borrowed every book that was available to him.

The skill of self-education came in handy as Lincoln grew older. He entered politics in 1832 with a run for the Illinois General Assembly, but lost and decided to take up law instead. He thoroughly absorbed the material in the law books that he was able to find and passed the bar in 1836.

Lincoln and Politics

Lincoln, however, still had politics in his blood. Before he had completed his studies of law, he was elected as a state legislator. Lincoln served for four terms before hitting the national scene. In 1847, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, pledging to serve only one term. Here he fell in step with the policies of the Whig Party, which offered the nation growth through government intervention in banking, railroads, and other aspects of the economy. These topics greatly interested Lincoln, but the Mexican–American War overshadowed domestic affairs. The American sentiment at the time was strongly in favor of national expansion in accordance with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, so Lincoln’s opposition to the war on the grounds that it was unnecessary for the defense of the new state of Texas was not popular.

A bigger issue, however, was looming on the horizon and threatening to engulf the nation in a catastrophic storm. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed and signed into law, repealing the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in new territories north of latitude 36º 30’, the southern boundary of Missouri. Lincoln, while not yet ready to accept abolition, opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories.

Abraham Lincoln: A Unit Study

Lincoln quickly decided return to politics and run for the United States Senate, feeling that the Kansas-Nebraska Act should “be rebuked and condemned every where.” The election was held in 1858, and his opponent was none other than Stephen A. Douglas, the originator of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In a famous series of debates, the two argued their differing views of slavery and popular sovereignty, the theory that the residents of a new state should vote on whether or not to allow slavery within its borders.

Lincoln lost the senate race, but he was not yet ready to exit politics a second time. Instead, he promptly set his eyes on the presidency. His inspiring rags-to-riches story, moderate stance on slavery, and support for such programs as a transcontinental railroad and a proposed homestead act made him the ideal candidate to the Republicans of the North. Meanwhile, the Democrats were divided among themselves, some of them favoring Stephen A. Douglas with his idea of popular sovereignty, others preferring John Breckinridge with his insistence that slavery be permitted without exception in all new territories.

Although Lincoln had little support in the South, he won the North quite handily. In response, the states of South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas seceded from the Union. These seven states had already promised to secede if a Republican was elected, since the fledgling party was founded on an uncompromising antislavery position, and they left quickly before the president-elect took office. Despite efforts on both sides to reconcile the divided country peaceably, no grounds for a compromise could be agreed upon.

The Lincoln Presidency

Abraham Lincoln: A Unit Study

Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1861, as the 16th United States president, as well as the first Republican president. For over a month both Union and Confederacy sat quietly, though the tension mounted daily. At last the storm broke. Lincoln sent supplies to Fort Sumter, a Union fort within the Confederate state of South Carolina, and the Confederates responded with armed opposition. Lincoln now threw himself into monitoring the war effort (albeit without a formal declaration of war), studying telegraph messages and even borrowing a book on military science so that he could fully master the subject before him.

Northern newspaper editors were loud and boastful in their declarations that the South would be beaten in 90 days or less. This pressured Lincoln to take drastic measures, while the morale was so high. On April 15, three days after the attack on Fort Sumter, the president called on the states to muster soldiers to defend Washington, recapture all forts in Confederate territory, and speedily put down the rebellion. Shortly afterward, he also suspended the writ of habeas corpus, arresting many politicians who were suspected of being pro-Confederacy, or at least antiwar.

Of course, the Civil War was not over in 90 days. Disappointed Northerners began to turn against the president, creating an even more delicate situation for him to handle. A plan occurred to Lincoln, however, which promised to aid the situation. He had originally declared his intention to leave slavery alone in places where it was already established. But a proclamation of emancipation would rally the discontented American abolitionists, win antislavery Britain and France to the Union side, and encourage slaves to revolt and take up arms against the Confederacy. Lincoln waited until a major victory to release his plan. Antietam gave him the opportunity he was waiting for, and on September 22, 1862, Lincoln made a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the final version taking effect on January 1, 1863.

Abraham Lincoln: A Unit Study
The Peacemakers showing Sherman, Grant, Lincoln, and Porter

As the war drew on, Lincoln found a general that he could count on in Ulysses Grant. As the two became better acquainted, a strategy evolved that targeted the Confederate economy. Although controversial, Lincoln and Grant believed that this plan would end the Civil War as quickly as possible. This must have given the president some assurance, because as early as 1863 he began to work on plans to bring the Southern states back into the Union after the war had ended. On December 8, he made the Amnesty Proclamation, which promised total pardon to all Confederates who had not held a civil office in the Confederate government, had not abused Union prisoners of war, and would pledge allegiance to the Union.

During this time, Lincoln did not forget his interest in domestic affairs. He signed the Homestead Act, giving free land to those who were willing to settle on it and improve it; the Pacific Railroad Act, establishing the Transcontinental Railroad; and an unprecedented act which provided federal protection for what is now Yosemite National Park. He also established the United States Department of Agriculture and brought back the national banking system that had been abolished by Andrew Jackson.

But the Civil War was by far the dominant issue in American politics when Lincoln ran for reelection. The radical wing of the Republican Party was furious with the Amnesty Proclamation and the president’s other expressions of his willingness to extend mercy to the South. At the same time, the Democrats built a platform on the statement that the war was a “failure” and demanded that it be immediately ceased. However, a series of brilliant Union successes, clinched Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. He was able to go forward with his plans to finish the war. Early in 1865, Grant captured the Confederate capital of Richmond, and Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9 that same year.

But Lincoln was not able to carry out his plans for a reconciliation of the divided nation. Two days after Lee’s surrender, the president made a speech advocating voting rights for blacks in direct contradiction to his earlier policies on the subject. This happened to infuriate an actor named John Wilkes Booth, a radical Confederate sympathizer, and he hatched a plan to assassinate the president. In an effort to upset the Union government, he also planned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and General Ulysses S. Grant.

The attempts on these three men were all unsuccessful, but the primary objective was carried out. On April 14, 1865, Booth shot Lincoln as he was watching a play at Ford’s Theater. Lincoln died the next morning, and Andrew Johnson became president. Booth was killed over a week later, probably shot after refusing to surrender to Union soldiers.

Abraham Lincoln: A Unit Study

Almost immediately a mystical aura formed around the legacy of Lincoln, and it has prevailed through more recent times. Lincoln’s head appeared on the penny in 1909. The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922. Lincoln’s face was sculpted onto Mount Rushmore several years later. Lincoln became the hero of the New Deal because of his advocacy for the common man. Lincoln symbolized freedom during the Cold War. In surveys today, Lincoln is consistently ranked in the top three of great American presidents.

Lincoln’s Legacy

  • Guided the United States through the Civil War.
  • Created the first income tax in America.
  • Signed the Homestead Act.
  • Signed the Pacific Railroad Act.
  • Helped to institute the Thanksgiving holiday.
  • Helped Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
  • Set new precedents for the president’s role as the chief executive.

Abraham Lincoln: A Unit StudyLincoln in His Own Words

  • Civil War: “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the Nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
  • Suspension of the writ of habeas corpus: “The provision of the Constitution that ‘The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, shall not be suspended unless when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it,’ is equivalent to a provision—is a provision—that such privilege may be suspended when, in cases of rebellion, or invasion, the public safety does require it. It was decided that we have a case of rebellion, and that the public safety does require the qualified suspension of the privilege of the writ which was authorized to be made.”
  • Slavery: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
  • Reconstruction: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
  • Government: “The legitimate object of government is ‘to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.’”

Further Investigation

Abraham Lincoln
Just the facts in this ThinkQuest.

Abraham Lincoln
Simple information along with text from the Gettysburg Address for younger children from Enchanted Learning.

Abraham Lincoln
Biography from Civil War Trust.

Lincoln, Abraham
Quick list of offices held from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Abraham Lincoln
Extensive biography for older students from the University of Virginia.

Emancipation Proclamation
Background from the Library of Congress.

Abraham Lincoln Timeline
From the Library of Congress.

Assassination of President Lincoln
Timeline from the Library of Congress.


A Word Fitly Spoken
Interactive timeline from Ashland University primarily pulling from Lincoln’s speeches.  Another excellent site!

Abraham Lincoln’s Crossroads
Interactive where the student makes the decisions Lincoln faced! (Flash required)

Abraham Lincoln
Use the links at the bottom to navigate this simple interactive biography from the National Park Service.

Abraham Lincoln and Antebellum America: Society and Politics
Another interactive biography from Northern Illinois University.

Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life
Walk through an extensive Smithsonian exhibit by following the links to the right or the arrows at the bottom.

Lincoln Hat Template
Print and assemble!

Abraham Lincoln’s Log Cabin
Craft activity to introduce young children to Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Jr. Ranger Activity Book
Free download with fun activities to help a young student learn more about Abraham Lincoln.

“You Are There: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln”
An old radio show dramatization that puts the listener in events as they happen.

“Cavalcade of America: Abraham Lincoln”
Another old radio show mp3 download.  You may also enjoy Abraham Lincoln — The War Years.


“O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman
Written after the President’s assassination.


Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire
Caldecott winner and favorite covering Lincoln’s path through Illinois and on to the White House.  Read our entire review with go-alongs!

If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln

If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln by Ann McGovern
Part of the Scholastic If You series that some enjoy (and some do not), this one by one of the better authors.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln: The Great Emancipator by Augusta Stevenson
Part of the Childhood of Famous Americans series and written by one of its better authors.

Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel by L.E. Chittenden
Short story in the public domain telling the story of a young soldier whose life Lincoln saved.

Our American Holidays: Lincoln’s Birthday {Free eBook}
Includes a great deal of primary source information that will complement any study of Lincoln.

The Papers and Writings of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln in his own words.  This is an index, so you will need to link through to each of the seven volumes to download.

“Abe” Lincoln’s Anecdotes and Stories by  R. D. Wordsworth
Accessible public domain work.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Lincoln Biography Reading Kit
Group of detailed lesson plans from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum covering his youth, the debates, the presidency, Gettysburg, and more.  Excellent printables!

Abraham Lincoln
12-page biography-oriented lesson plan from the National Park Service that covers the early years, life in Illinois, the presidency, and more.

Gettysburg Address Lesson Plan
Great lesson plan from Civil War Trust based upon the speech that explores its role at the time and today.  There is a video with actors reading the speech that includes content that may not be suitable for young children.  Nevertheless, older students will find much to take away.

d’Aulaire’s Abraham Lincoln {Review & Go-Alongs}
Lots of suggestions, activities, resources, and printables in our review.

You Are an Investigative Reporter
Free lesson plan from Eastern Illinois University where the student uses primary sources to investigate the conspiracy.

Abraham Lincoln: The Face of a War
Free download from the Smithsonian that looks at Lincoln the man through photographs.

Abraham Lincoln’s Legacy
Lesson plan from the Center for Civic Education.

Presidents Day {Holiday Helps}
Many other Lincoln resources in our Presidents Day unit.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Abraham Lincoln
Coloring page from White House Kids.

Abraham Lincoln Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.