Lincoln and Presidential Power


When Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860, his experience in politics and government included serving in the Illinois legislature and the US House of Representatives. He had also studied law and was licensed to practice law in Illinois at age twenty-seven. This seems like scant experience for a man who would lead a country through its greatest internal challenge. However, Lincoln found a way to draw on his life experience and his professional knowledge to lead the nation with an astuteness and skill that might have escaped a more seasoned politician.

Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861. He served until 1865, and during this tenure he led the country through the crises of secession and civil war. His presidency, which was defined by a Constitutional challenge and forged in a bloody war, has been judged among the greatest in US history. Though the distinction awarded Lincoln was warranted in part by the high position he held and by the magnitude of the crises, it was also earned by the intelligence and the political savvy of the man. This lesson will ask students to analyze Abraham Lincoln, the man, as President of the United States.


  • Students will be able to create a model for evaluating the validity of historical evidence.
  • Students will read appropriate sections of the Constitution and letters from the Federalist Papers in order to identify the powers of the President of the United States.
  • Students will examine primary documents and secondary sources to analyze the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Students will be able to examine the effects of secession and Civil War on the office of the president and on the sixteenth president.
  • Students will be able to read Supreme Court decisions that challenged the power of the president and identify Lincoln’s response.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of the significant social, economic and political events of this era. 


Student Exercise One

Student Exercise Two

Student Exercise Three


Student Exercise One: Define the Presidency

  1. Have students read Article II of the Constitution of the United States and the Federalist Papers, number 69 and 70. Have them also read secondary accounts (see links above) of the era in order to gain a better understanding of the office.
  2. The students should work together to develop a description of the powers of the President of the US from the sources.

Student Exercise Two: Lincoln and Secession, A Debate

Using the research (see links both above), set up a debate using the following resolution:

Resolved: Secession violated the Constitution of the United States

The format for the debate will depend on the size of the class.

Student Exercise Three: War Powers of the President

Panel Discussion: Was Lincoln in compliance with the Constitution when he declared war on the seceded states, passed the Second Confiscation Act, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation?

The class should be divided into three groups and assigned one of Lincoln’s actions as president. The group will research the assigned topic and prepare for responses to the discussion question. The format for the discussion will depend on the size of the class.

Extension Activity

Essay: To what extent did Lincoln’s response to the Civil War alter the power of the President of the United States?