Abraham Lincoln: A Man for All Seasons


At one time in our country’s history we stood divided as a nation over the issue of slavery. It was Abraham Lincoln’s ideology and sense of purpose that helped to unite our country and set us on a path toward realizing the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

"All men are created equal" are words that Abraham Lincoln took literally, from a moral and economic standpoint. After all, as Lewis Lehrman argues in his book Lincoln at Peoria, Lincoln felt slavery was grounded in coercion. It was an involuntary economic exchange of labor. In commercial terms, slavery is theft. Lincoln himself proclaimed, "Slavery differs from free labor as beast does from man."

For students to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s qualities as a statesman, orator, and president, they must examine Lincoln’s various viewpoints on slavery, equality, and war. By exploring Lincoln’s opposition to slavery over the course of this two-day lesson, students will recognize the challenges he faced and his determination and strategies for overcoming them.

In this lesson, students will analyze primary sources that will enable students to formulate a vision of Abraham Lincoln as not only an important historical figure, but as "A Man for All Seasons"—a man of his time and a man of ours.


  • Students will identify various viewpoints and justifications of slavery expressed during the Civil War era and categorize those viewpoints as political, economic, or moral.
  • Students will interpret and explain Lincoln’s opposition to slavery by citing primary sources introduced in the lesson.
  • Students will develop a persuasive argument through the use of primary sources from which they can model a debate.
  • Students will compare/contrast two separate documents relating to Lincoln and slavery.
  • Students will be able to identify the pro- or anti-slavery viewpoints of political cartoons and interpret their meaning.


Day One

It may be helpful to distribute a list of defined terms, groups, and individuals that will be under discussion. Such a list might include: slavery, secession, the Missouri Compromise, Bleeding Kansas, Democratic Party, Republican Party, Whig Party, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, Frederick Douglass, equality, natural rights, Jefferson Davis, Union, Confederacy. The Timeline and Terms section of the Gilder Lehrman website is a good starting point for definitions.

  1. 3–5 minutes: Appoint three team leaders for a cooperative learning exercise in which teams will identify, interpret, and analyze the following positions taken by Lincoln and by Lincoln’s opposition in both the North and the South:

    Team 1: Lincoln’s economic arguments against slavery
    Team 2: Lincoln’s moral arguments against slavery
    Team 3: Lincoln’s political arguements against slavery
  2. 15–20 minutes: Using relevant excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches and writings, teams will discuss the position their group has been assigned. The objective of these discussions is to interpret, analyze, and support with primary source documents their group’s respective position. Teachers may include excerpts from the above speeches to aid students’ discussion. An extensive collection of Lincoln speeches and writings can also be found at Abraham Lincoln Online.
  3. 10–12 minutes: Team leaders will each present an encapsulated report based on group input supporting Lincoln’s viewpoint. This may be used as a foundation for writing a persuasive argument in essay form (as a possible homework assignment).
  4. 15–20 minutes: Discuss the similarities and differences students have identified in Lincoln’s arguments against slavery. Ask students: Were Lincoln’s reasons for opposing slavery always consistent? Is consistency important in this case?

Day Two

  1. 15–20 minutes: Team leaders will present their team’s combined conclusions from Day One.
  2. 15–30 minutes: After all arguments have been introduced, distribute copies of the Emancipation Proclamation to the class. Explain that Lincoln decided to sign the Proclamation in 1863 largely for strategic reasons—with the number of white volunteers diminishing he wished to recruit freed slaves for service in the Union Army. Ask students to consider this and discuss whether or not Lincoln’s many different arguments against slavery made him a more or less effective president and commander in chief. (For a good account of Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, see James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom or Alan Guelzo’s Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.)


Distribute handouts of political cartoons from the era depicting pro- and anti-Lincoln positions. Have students identify the position of the cartoon’s artist, which of Lincoln’s positions the artist is attacking or supporting, and how the artist visually portrays these positions. As homework, students may be asked to draw their own Lincoln political cartoon.