What Events Led to Lincoln’s Assassination?

by John Hallagan

Overview

Fourth-grade students often associate Abraham Lincoln with three things: He wore a tall hat, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and he was assassinated. The murder of Lincoln, whom most historians consider one of the country’s two most important presidents, had major consequences for our nation and for the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War.

John Wilkes Booth’s premeditated attack was a carefully orchestrated plot involving at least eight other participants. The fact that President Lincoln was shot while enjoying a show at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, leaves students wondering how it could have happened. A week earlier General Lee had surrendered to General Grant. The nation was finally looking forward to peace. Yet out of the shadows came Booth to kill the president, while one of his conspirators attempted to murder the secretary of state.

Students exploring this type of turning point in American history are frequently frustrated by a lack of understanding of the event. While comprehensive answers may never be available to explain how these crimes could have taken place, we can examine the circumstances surrounding them to gather a partial understanding of why they happened.

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was yet another wound that our country suffered due to the “peculiar institution” of slavery. In studying the Civil War, students will discover that slavery was at the core of the conflict that tore our nation apart and that ultimately killed the sixteenth president. States’ rights, while often cited as the reason why Southern states seceded, masked the political and moral arguments over slavery. Lincoln’s legacy—the abolition of slavery in the United States—was also the cause of his death.

Materials

Primary sources:

Secondary sources include encyclopedias, textbooks, and trade books such as Robert E. Jakoubek’s The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Millbrook Press, 1993).

Objectives

  • Students will identify arguments supporting and opposing the position that Lincoln’s assassination could have been avoided.
  • Students will enhance their research and writing skills as a result of this lesson.

Aim/Essential Question

Using information from given references, including primary sources, find information that will help you answer the question, “What events led to Lincoln’s assassination?”

Activities

  • Work in pairs to locate answers to the questions listed below.
  • Gather information through reading printed material and electronic media.
  • Compose a report (at least 250 words) that answers the questions.
  • Revise and edit the report. Cite sources of information.
  • Review and critically evaluate reports written by peers.
  • Participate in a full-class debate about the essential question.

Motivation

The teacher will distribute the broadside informing the public of Lincoln’s assassination. Following a review of the poster, students will discuss how people might have reacted when they first saw the announcement.

Procedure

  1. Introduce the essential question: What events led to Lincoln’s assassination?
  2. Allow the class to explore this turning point in American history.
  3. Introduce the assignment: Students will work in pairs using available library resources and website documents to find answers to the questions below. The teacher will explain to the students that they will be expected to “think like journalists,” meaning that they will read information that will enable them to answer the questions: What? When? Where? Why? and How?
    Questions
    1. Who assassinated Lincoln?
    2. What events preceded the assassination?
    3. Where was Abraham Lincoln killed?
    4. When did this happen?
    5. How did John Wilkes Booth get access to the president?
    6. What reasons did John Wilkes Booth give for wanting to assassinate the president?
  4. Students will share their research findings in small groups. Each student will be responsible for preparing his/her own report. Reports should include footnotes and a bibliography.
  5. Each student will exchange his/her research report with another student. Students will evaluate the reports using the questions cited above as a guide. The teacher will give each paper a numerical grade based on the quality of the information and the writing.

Discussion

After grading the papers, the teacher will lead a discussion on their content and on how they are written. Then the class will be separated into two groups: students who believe the assassination could have been avoided, and students who do not think it could have been prevented. The teacher will follow through by organizing a class debate on the essential question.

Follow-up

Each student should develop five additional questions stemming from the research and the debate. To help students frame the questions, the teacher should ask: What else do you want to know? Where might you find the answers to these new questions?

Application

The teacher will distribute the Frederick Douglass letter to Mary Todd Lincoln following Lincoln’s assassination (GLC02474). Based on this letter the teacher will ask the class to describe Frederick Douglass’s reaction to Lincoln’s assassination. The class will then discuss how Lincoln’s assassination affected the nation.

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