Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugural Addresses


This lesson on President Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based units. These units enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Through a step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any material. Although this lesson is designed for high school students, middle school students could certainly handle it by moving more slowly through the process of the lesson, adding more modeling of the expectations for both graphic organizers, and using excerpts from Lincoln’s first inaugural address instead of the entirety of the address.


Over the course of this lesson, students will examine Lincoln’s presidential aims in his first and second inaugural addresses and then compare and contrast the similarities and differences of texts to determine how his goals changed between the first and the second inaugurations.


This lesson can be used to introduce the time period of the Civil War, using student knowledge of the events leading up to Lincoln’s first election to inform class discussions described in the procedure section. If used to introduce the Civil War, be sure to reference these two addresses when appropriate as the students learn the content in the larger unit. This lesson can also be used during or at the end of a Civil War unit. This lesson has students brainstorm the difficulties facing Lincoln as the Civil War began and throughout his presidency. Students will use an open compare and contrast graphic organizer to analyze those challenges and identify similarities and differences in the two addresses as well as categories of differences. Student understanding of the text will be determined in group and classroom discussion and through their completed graphic organizer and written response to the open compare and contrast graphic organizer.



Students may encounter vocabulary and phrases they are unfamiliar with. They should attempt to reason out the meanings of words and phrases within the context of the text. If students become stuck, post words and phrases and discuss as a whole class what they might mean. If a word or phrase is critical to understanding the address, then provide the meaning to the class.


Although the lesson is asking students to listen to the Second Inaugural Address first, it provides a jumping off point for a whole-class discussion on what challenges Lincoln faced in his first administration.

  1. Hand out the graphic organizer that contains Lincoln’s First and Second Inaugural Addresses.
  2. Read aloud Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address to the whole class and ask the students to follow along.
  3. Ask the students to write down particular words or phrases in the Second Inaugural Address that hint at the challenges facing Lincoln in his second term. Post on the board. Make a list of the broader challenges facing Lincoln’s presidency and then ask the students what was not addressed and why they think that might be. Discuss as a class their background knowledge of the deep divisions within the country up to his first election. This brainstorming should be written on the board for the whole class to see and to use as a reference during the course of their examination of both addresses.
  4. Give each student a small slip of paper. Ask them to write one adjective on the paper that describes the tone (sad, happy, focused, etc.) and to hold up their slip of paper when they are finished. Write each word on the board and keep track of adjectives used several times. As the class discusses tone, be sure to ask for evidence in the text that supports their suppositions about tone.
  5. Tell students that they are moving backward in time to the First Inaugural Address. Model the first one or two sections with the whole class. Read the section, ask them to pick out key words or phrases, repeating words that will indicate the focus of the text, and adjectives that Lincoln uses that will help determine the tone and/or mood of the document, and then ask the students to help you summarize what Lincoln is saying in that section.
  6. Divide the class into groups of four. Students within each group will divide up the rest of the first address and complete their own section. To ensure each student has completed their assigned section, be sure individual graphic organizers are complete before moving on to group and whole-class discussion.
  7. Group and whole-class discussion: Once the individual sections are complete, the group members will share with each other their understanding of their assigned section. Students should read their own section in order of the text and should take notes when other group members are sharing. Once groups are finished, check for completed organizers and then have the class discuss the address. Refer them back to the brainstorming they completed in steps three and four.
  8. Repeat directions in steps six and seven for Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. This should run fairly quickly as this document has already been discussed at some length as a class.
  9. Hand out Open Compare Contrast. In pairs, students will look for similarities between the two addresses using key words or phrases from the text.
  10. Once all pairs have finished, tell them the hardest part of comparing and contrasting is finding the differences and developing categories of differences. As a class, discuss the general tone of the First Inaugural Address. Have students write the word "Tone" into the first open box under the "How Different" heading. Have them fill in the corresponding boxes (on the left and right) for both the First and Second Inaugural Addresses using words or phrases from each as evidence of tone.
  11. Pairs develop three of their own categories and complete the differences portion of the graphic organizer. Be sure to emphasize that they are to use Lincoln’s own words or phrases as evidence for differences.
  12. Once student pairs have completed similarities and differences, discuss as a class what significant patterns of similarities and differences they discovered between the two addresses.
  13. As a wrap-up to the lesson, students write an independent conclusion or interpretation on the two addresses. Have students share their conclusions and compare them with their partner’s or group members’ conclusions.