Abraham Lincoln on Slavery and Race

by Roberta McCutcheon


Slavery played a prominent role in America’s political, social, and economic history in the antebellum era. The “peculiar institution” was at the forefront of discussions ranging from the future of the nation’s economy to western expansion and the admission of new states into the Union. The public discourse in the first half of the nineteenth century exposed the nation’s ambivalence about slavery and race. Politicians were increasingly pressured to make their opinions known, and Abraham Lincoln was no exception.


Students will:

  1. Read the letters and speeches of Abraham Lincoln
  2. Analyze Lincoln’s position on slavery
  3. Position Lincoln’s views toward slavery within the historical context. 
  4. Evaluate the influence of race on politics in the antebellum era.

A more thorough discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s politics and debates about slavery can be found in a good textbook or Manisha Sinha’s essay Allies for Emancipation?: Black Abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln. An overview of events leading up to the Civil War can be found on the Gilder Lehrman website under The Failure of Compromise. Students can use the timeline to explore important events, terms, and people.

Lesson Activities


Note: This lesson will require more than one classroom period.  Readings and research may be assigned for students to examine as homework proceeding the instructional period. An alternative approach might be to work collaboratively with a teacher of Language Arts who may introduce some of the letters and speeches prior to the Social Studies class activities.

Activity One: Cooperative Class Discussion — Abraham Lincoln’s Correspondence

Divide the class into five groups. Assign each group one of the following documents:

  1. Have each group read the assigned Lincoln letter and respond to the following:
    1. Identify any relevant information about the recipient of the letter (the person’s position and significance to Lincoln).
    2. In what context was the letter written? When, where, and why?
    3. What did Lincoln have to say about slavery and/or race in the letter?

Have each group share its research on its letter with the other groups.

  1. Full-Class Discussion:
    1. Why is it important to establish the historical context for the letter?
    2. Do these letters indicate a change in Lincoln’s position?
    3. Why might Lincoln’s letters express views not found in his speeches?
    4. In what ways do the letters clarify Lincoln’s stand on slavery and/or race?
    5. In what ways do the letters help to us to understand the connection between race and politics?

Activity Two: Panel Discussion — One Man’s Stand on Slavery and Race

Divide class into several groups and assign each group one of the speeches from the websites listed below. Have each group prepare for a panel discussion in which it will present the position on slavery taken in its assigned speech. Remaining students will be the audience. (See below) These students should receive copies of all the speeches in advance of the panel discussion in order to prepare their own questions. 

Have each group select a representative to present the group’s findings in a panel discussion. The panelists will:

  1. Prepare an opening speech on the group’s analysis of the assigned speech. Information to be included in this presentation: the historical context for the speech, the speech’s audience, and the position on slavery that the speech expresses.
  2. Be prepared to respond to questions about the contents of the speech and about Lincoln at the time of the speech.

Assign a student moderator. The moderator will:

  1. Introduce the topic for the panel discussion.
  2. Prepare questions for panelists after presentations.
  3. Direct questions from the audience (the remainder of the class) to the panelists.

The remainder of the class will be the audience, and should be prepared to ask the panel members questions about Lincoln and slavery.

Activity Three: Political Campaign

Divide the class in two groups. Each group will plan one of Lincoln’s major political campaigns:

  1. 1858 senatorial election (Illinois)
  2. 1860 presidential election

Each campaign should include the following:

  1. A platform statement on Lincoln’s stand on slavery and on the stand of his political party.
  2. Three campaign ads—these should be creative to attract attention and support (for example, posters or a campaign video).
  3. An ad exposing the weakness of Lincoln’s opponent in the Senate race or of one of his opponents in the presidential race.

Discussion/debriefing questions:

  1. Did the two campaigns show a change in Lincoln’s stand on slavery? Explain your opinion.
  2. What events or disputes affected the change?
  3. Did Lincoln’s position on slavery in each of the campaigns reflect his personal convictions about slavery and race, or one that would best ensure winning the election?


Essay: To what extent did the Emancipation Proclamation reflect a change in Lincoln’s position on slavery between 1830 and 1863?

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