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[Detail] Lincoln Centennial Association

Collection Overview

The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana is a collection of more than 11,100 items donated to the Library of Congress in 1953; the items encompass not only President Lincoln’s life (1809-1865), but also the events of the time, particularly slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Currently, 1,300 items are available online. Created between 1824 and 1931, the digitized items include newspapers, Lincoln’s law papers, sheet music, broadsides, prints, cartoons, maps, drawings, letters, campaign tickets, and more.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword, Author, or Subject Indexes.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana is a collection of more than 11,100 items donated to the Library of Congress in 1953; the items encompass not only President Lincoln’s life (1809-1865), but also the events of the time, particularly slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Currently, 1,300 items are available online. Created between 1824 and 1931, the digitized items include newspapers, Lincoln’s law papers, sheet music, broadsides, prints, cartoons, maps, drawings, letters, campaign tickets, and more.

By studying documents from the collection, students can gain insight into President Lincoln as both a man and a historic figure. They can also learn a great deal about the historic events in which Lincoln was a pivotal figure—slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Further, the documents in the collection provide windows into public opinion and other aspects of social history in the nineteenth century.

The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana features three galleries that can be useful entry points into the collection: “Lincoln’s Letters,” “Objects in the Collection,” and “Collection Highlights,” which features election tickets, documents related to the Emancipation Proclamation, portraits of Lincoln, broadsides and photographs, newspapers and ephemera, and papers from Lincoln’s law practice in Illinois. Another good starting point is the brief biography of Lincoln that is provided in the collection; students could read the biography and then search the collection for documents that would provide more information about events covered in the biography.

The collection can be browsed by title, author, or subject and can be searched by keyword; both the bibliographic information and full text can be searched, which makes the content of the collection readily accessible.

Lincoln’s Illinois Years

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, in Kentucky. His family suffered financial setbacks and moved to Indiana in 1816. Abraham was rarely able to attend school, instead working on his family farm. In 1830, the family once again moved, this time to Illinois.

In 1832, Lincoln briefly served in the militia during the Black Hawk War, but did not take part in any actual fighting. That same year saw his first run for public office; he failed as a Whig candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives. His second try in 1834 was successful, and he won three additional terms to the Illinois House. In the early 1830s, he also began studying law on his own, borrowing law books from a lawyer to read at night; he was admitted to the bar in 1837. He moved to Springfield and set up a law practice, which often involved traveling on horseback from county to county.

Use the Browse by Subject feature to locate records from some of Abraham Lincoln’s legal cases. Find records related to at least three different types of cases.

  • What kinds of cases did he handle?
  • What similarities do you see between the cases Lincoln handled in his career and cases today? What differences do you see? What, if anything, do these cases tell you about the legal profession at the time?

Moving to the National Stage

Lincoln, a Whig who held party leader Henry Clay in high esteem, campaigned for Whig candidates across the state of Illinois in the 1840s and early 1850s. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846. Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate in 1849, but that bid was unsuccessful, and he returned to his law practice. In the next several years, political developments and increasing sectionalism resulted in serious weakening of the Whig Party.

Spurred by passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed slavery north of latitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes, a new party was formed, the Republican Party. Lincoln was an early member of the party, helping a Republican senator to win election in Illinois in 1854. That same year, Lincoln was invited to give a speech at Peoria in response to Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the sponsor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Understanding that Judge Douglas is expected to address our citizens on the 16th of next month on the principles of the Nebraska-Kansas Bill. And feeling that what he may then advance should not be suffered to pass without suitable notice – the undersigned, on behalf of themselves and the Whigs of Peoria, are exceedingly desirous that (if not too great a tax upon your time & strength) you will consent to be present and take a convenient opportunity, after the speech of Judge D., to reply to it, and give us your own views upon the subject.

From “Lincoln's invitation to Peoria.”

The three-hour speech Lincoln gave in response to this invitation gained national attention. In 1858, the Illinois Republicans nominated Lincoln as their candidate for the U.S. Senate, opposing Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat. Lincoln gave another notable speech to close the Illinois Republican convention in Springfield:

. . . “A house divided against itself can not stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the unit to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction: or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.

From “Conclusion of the Republican State Convention: Speech of Hon. Abraham Lincoln,” from “Illinois political campaign of 1858” image 10

Read the entire speech and answer the following questions:

  • What did Lincoln mean when he referred to the Nebraska doctrine (the Kansas-Nebraska Act) and Dred Scott decision as a “piece of machinery”? For what work did he say the machinery was designed?
  • To whom is Lincoln referring when he talks about “Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James”? What does he mean when he says they “all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck?” How does he make the case for what he calls “preconcert”?
  • What arguments does Lincoln make against the candidacy of Stephen A. Douglas? How does he try to rally Republicans to his own candidacy? How effective do you find his arguments?

Lincoln and Douglas took part in a series of seven debates in cities around Illinois. A series of letters between them illustrates some sniping between the two candidates as the arrangements were made. The primary focus of these debates was slavery. At the second debate, in Freeport, Lincoln tried to force Douglas to choose between popular sovereignty, as represented in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case (that slavery could not constitutionally be excluded from U.S. territories). In response, Douglas espoused a compromise position, articulating what came to be known as the Freeport Doctrine:

The next question propounded to me by Mr. Lincoln is, can the people of a territory in any lawful way against the wishes of any citizen of the United States; exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution? I answer emphatically, as Mr. Lincoln has heard me answer a hundred times from every stump in Illinois, that in my opinion the people of a Territory can, by lawful means, exclude slavery from their limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution. Mr. Lincoln knew that I had answered that question over and over again. He heard me argue the Nebraska bill on that principle all over the State in 1854, in 1855, and in 1856, and he has no excuse for pretending to be in doubt as to my position on that question. It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a territory under the constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations. Those police regulations can only be established by the local legislature; and if the people are opposed to slavery they will elect representatives to that body who will by unfriendly legislation effectually prevent the introduction of it into their midst. If, on the contrary, they are for it, their legislation will favor its extension. Hence, no matter what the decision of the Supreme Court may be on that abstract question, still the right of the people to make a slave territory or a free territory is perfect and complete under the Nebraska bill. I hope Mr. Lincoln deems my answer satisfactory on that point.

“Douglas’ Speech,” from “Illinois political campaign of 1858”

In his response to Douglas, who highlighted ways in which Lincoln’s positions disagreed with those taken by county and congressional district conventions of the Republican Party, Lincoln emphasized the opposition of Illinoisans to the Kansas-Nebraska Act sponsored by Douglas:

At the introduction of the Nebraska policy, we believed there was a new era being introduced in the history of the Republic, which tended to the spread and perpetuation of slavery. But in our opposition to that measure we did not agree with one another in everything. The people in the north end of the State were for stronger measures of opposition than we of the central and southern portions of the State, but we were all opposed to the Nebraska doctrine. We had that one feeling and that one sentiment in common. You at the north end met in your Conventions and passed your resolutions. We in the middle of the State and further south did not hold such Conventions and pass the same resolutions, although we had in general a common view and a common sentiment. . . We at last met together in 1856 from all parts of the State, and we agreed upon a common platform. You, who held more extreme notions either yielded those notions, or if not wholly yielding them, agreed to yield them practically, for the sake of embodying the opposition to the measures which the opposite party were pushing forward at that time. . . . For my part, I do hope that all of us, entertaining a common sentiment in opposition to what appears to us a design to nationalize and perpetuate slavery, will waive minor differences on questions which either belong to the dead past or the distant future, and all pull together in this struggle.

“Mr. Lincoln’s Rejoinder” from “Illinois political campaign of 1858”

  • Why do you think Douglas felt compelled to put forth a compromise position on slavery in the territories? Do you think this position helped him in Illinois? When he sought national office in 1860, do you think the Freeport Doctrine helped or hindered his efforts?
  • What is the strongest part of Douglas’s argument for a compromise position? What is the weakest part of his argument?
  • Lincoln also described a process of compromise. In what way was the compromise he described different from the compromise put forth by Douglas?
  • How does the exchange between the two candidates resemble or differ from exchanges among candidates today? Give examples to support your answer.

Although Republicans won more popular votes than the Democrats did, the Democrats won more legislative seats and thus were able to re-elect Senator Douglas. (This was prior to passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, which allowed for direct election of Senators.)

Election of 1860

Although he lost the election in 1858, publicity about the debates with Stephen Douglas made Abraham Lincoln a nationally known leader in the Republican Party. He became the presidential candidate because his views were seen as moderate in comparison to some other Republican leaders; in addition, he was from a new state and could thus appeal to voters in the West.

There were three prominent political parties in 1860 (Republican, Democratic, and the new Constitutional Union), but the presidential election became a four-way race when the Democrats split over slavery.

Read the information about the election in the Philadelphia Enquirer Supplement of June 21, 1860.

  • Make a chart showing the four parties, the candidate for each party, the strengths of each candidate from your point of view, and key points from the party platform.
  • Analyze the data from the previous elections provided in the supplement, looking particularly at how states in the North, South, and West voted. Based on your analysis of these elections and the candidates, which of the four candidates would you predict would win in each region? Use the data to support your conclusions.
  • Why did the newspaper editors include information about the make-up of the House of Representatives? If the election had gone into the House, who do you think would have won? Explain your answer.

Lincoln did not travel around the country campaigning, but local Republican parties throughout the North and West produced broadsides, posters, songs, and newspaper articles supporting him. Campaign materials advocated the party platform and described Lincoln as a hard-working and honest man who had risen from a childhood of poverty. Here are lyrics from one campaign song:

Come sons of freedom ‘ rouse ye all.
Move onward to the fight,
Fling out your banners to the breeze,
The foe is now in sight.
Your voices raise in notes of joy.
And spread from sea to sea
The gallant shout of freemen bold,
Old honest Abe for me.

From “Old Honest Abe for Me”

Read the rest of the lyrics for this song and for another, “Honest Old Abe,” and then think about these questions:

  • To what ideals and emotions do these songs appeal? Are they the same ideals and emotions that presidential campaigns appeal to today?
  • Who is the audience? What do the songs suggest about the issues and the campaign in 1860?
  • What metaphors are used to describe the campaign? What do they suggest?
  • How effective do you think these campaign songs were at spreading a message and persuading people? How effective would they be today?

Read the broadside “To the Citizens of Philadelphia,” which was published on election day.

  • What candidate do the writers of the broadside support?
  • What issues are they using to try to convince voters to support their candidate?
  • Why do they want a large turnout for their candidate?
  • What similarities and differences do you see between this appeal to voters and the appeals made today?

Lincoln narrowly won the election though he failed to carry any southern states.

1861-1862: Secession, Inauguration, and War

Lincoln would not take office until March 1861, but reaction to his election was almost immediate. On December 20, South Carolina announced that it was seceding from the Union. By February, six other states—Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas—had seceded. The seven states declared themselves a new nation—the Confederate States of America. Neither President Buchanan nor President-elect Lincoln recognized the Confederacy.

Unknown advocates of the Confederacy wrote an “Epitaph” for the Union:


From “Epitaph. Here lie the mutilated and disjoined remains of the noblest form of government.”

Read the entire “epitaph,” keeping in mind that it was a persuasive document put forth by one side in a dispute. Then consider the following questions:

  • Why do you think the authors of the epitaph made such a point of praising the government established under the Constitution? Do you think this was an effective strategy in making their case?
  • What or whom did the authors of the epitaph blame for the demise of the Union? What evidence did they use to make their case?
  • Can you find any direct references to Abraham Lincoln? Any indirect references? What are the authors’ views of Lincoln?
  • Whom do the authors quote in making their case? Why do you think they chose these individuals to quote? Do you think this was an effective strategy in making their case?
  • If you were a supporter of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, how would you have responded to the epitaph?

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. During the inaugural events, bodyguards and federal troops protected Lincoln. In his inaugural address, he stressed that the Union was perpetual—that is, secession was not a constitutional solution to sectional strife. He ended his address with the following:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the angels of our better nature.

From “The Inaugural,” in “The Corrector, Sag Harbor, new York, V. 39, no. 40.”

Hoping to avoid war, Lincoln decided not to act against the Southern states unless and until they attacked the Union. Instead, he put his cabinet in place. Cabinet members included most of the men who had wanted the Republican nomination for President in 1860. Working with a Cabinet composed of his rivals required skilled management on Lincoln’s part.

Salmon P. Chase had served as a Senator and as Governor of Ohio and had been instrumental in creating the Republican Party. Appointed Secretary of the Treasury, Chase clashed with Lincoln regularly. In 1864, Lincoln accepted his resignation (tendered for the fourth time), but then nominated him to be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The collection contains two letters from Chase, one to President Lincoln, and one to General Irwin McDowell. Read the two letters and answer the following questions:

  • What was the focus of the 1862 letter to President Lincoln? What differences between the two men does it reflect?
  • What was the focus of the 1862 letter to General McDowell? How does the letter deepen your understanding of the conflict between Chase and Lincoln?
  • Based on these two letters, how would you characterize the relationship between Chase and Lincoln?
  • Given that Lincoln was approaching what he knew would be a very trying time for the nation, why do you think he put together a Cabinet made up of people who not only disagreed with but may have personally disliked him?

Just five weeks after the inauguration, Confederate troops fired on the Union fort at Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor. Lincoln called on the state governors to send troops to fight on behalf of the Union. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederate states. War was on.

A number of documents in the collection provide news of and perspectives on the first year and a half of the war. Examine several of the following documents and browse the collection for other documents on the war through 1862:

How many different kinds of documents were you able to find on the first year and a half of the war? What different perspectives did these documents provide on the war? Based on the information you were able to gather, what was the status of the Union effort by fall 1862?

1863: The Emancipation Proclamation and the Continuation of the War

Beginning in 1862, Congress and the President began acting to change the status of enslaved people in the United States. In March, Lincoln commanded Union Army officers not to return fugitive slaves who had made it behind Union lines. In April, slaves in Washington, D.C., were freed; their owners were given compensation. In June, slavery was prohibited in U.S. territories. In July, Lincoln began discussing emancipation with his Cabinet, but he waited until the Union victory on the battlefield at Antietam to issue a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862. This proclamation said that slaves would be freed in any Confederate states that did not return to Union control. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation. Read the proclamation and answer the following questions:

  • How did Lincoln justify issuing the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • Why were certain parts of the Confederate states excepted from the proclamation? What other slaves were not emancipated by the proclamation?
  • What does Lincoln ask the emancipated people to do?
  • In what ways would emancipating the slaves help the Union?

The war raged on through 1863. The collection contains a number of interesting letters key figures in the war wrote during 1863:

Read these letters, looking for information about the progress of the war, as seen through the eyes of the various letter-writers. Then answer these questions:

  • What can you learn about the progress of the war from reading these letters? Which letter do you find most informative? Why?
  • Identify a detail in a letter and try to confirm that detail using another source in the collection (for example, you might be able to confirm information through newspaper reports).
  • What, if anything, do the letters from Lincoln reveal about his character? Do the letters reveal character traits that you might not get from Lincoln’s public speeches or descriptions of the president written by others?

In July 1863, Union forces won a bloody battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Some 7,500 soldiers were buried there; they were just a fraction of the 250,000 lost in the war to that time. Anti-war and anti-Lincoln feelings were on the rise, as evidenced by the New York Draft riots that occurred less than two weeks after the battle at Gettysburg. When the cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated in November 1863, the president was asked to take only a small role in the ceremony. Lincoln delivered a brief speech designed to buoy the spirits of the citizens of the Union. While not acclaimed at the time, the Gettysburg Address has become one of the best-known speeches in U.S. history.

  • What ideals did Lincoln appeal to in the speech?
  • Why does Lincoln say that the people gathered at the dedication “cannot dedicate, cannot consecrate” the cemetery?
  • What does Lincoln predict will happen if the Union does not prevail?
  • What in the speech might have lifted the spirits of the Union? How might you assess whether the speech helped meet the goal Lincoln set for it?

1864-1865: Lincoln’s Reelection, Union Victory, and the Assassination

Early in 1864, President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as commander of all Union forces. General Grant, with agreement of the president and the support of other generals, most notably William Tecumseh Sherman, took an aggressive approach to the war, attacking the Confederate forces on numerous fronts. Casualties on both sides were extremely high. In the midst of the fierce fighting, the nation prepared for a presidential election. Although some believed he could not be reelected, President Lincoln was nominated—but this time by a new party, the National Union Party, which was made up of Republicans and so-called War Democrats. The Democrats (or Peace Democrats) nominated former Union general George B. McClellan

Given what you know about the political situation of the time, what do you think each party’s platform was? Jot down some ideas, and then check them against the following document: “The Platforms. Baltimore. Chicago.” How accurate were your predictions? Search the collection to find out about the campaign of 1864. What arguments were made by the two sides?

The states that had seceded did not participate in the election, and Lincoln was easily reelected. Following his reelection, Lincoln decided to push for passage of a constitutional amendment permanently abolishing slavery in the United States. Such an amendment had passed the Senate in 1864, but had failed in the House. On January 31, 1865, however, the president’s efforts succeeded, and the amendment passed the House. It would not become part of the constitution until after his death.

By the time Lincoln took the oath of office for his second term in March, Union victory seemed assured. His second inaugural address, another of his notable speeches, reminded listeners of the reasons the war had been fought and called on the nation not to seek revenge against the South:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Second inaugural address of the late President Lincoln.

Read Lincoln’s address and answer the questions that follow:

  • Why do you think Lincoln’s address was so brief?
  • How did he characterize the conflict between North and South? Do you agree with this characterization?
  • How is Lincoln’s call to “bind up the nation’s wounds”consistent with his character as you understand it?
  • The Veterans Administration chose a quotation from Lincoln’s speech as its mission statement. What part of the speech do you think they chose? Why?

On April 9, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces, surrendered, ending the Civil War. Just days later, President Lincoln was assassinated while attending the theater. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, conspired with several others to kill the President, Vice President (the person assigned to kill Vice President Johnson did not make an attempt on his life), and Secretary of State William Seward (who was shot but survived). The aim of the Southern sympathizers who hatched the plot was to create chaos so the government could be overthrown. Booth was killed when Union soldiers tried to apprehend him. Eight other conspirators were tried and convicted; four were executed.

Detailed plans for the president’s funeral were developed. Official services were held in Washington, but many other cities had ceremonies at which citizens mourned their leader. Following the Washington services, Lincoln’s body traveled by train back to Springfield, Illinois.


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking

This collection includes copies of The New York Times for almost every day of the month following Lincoln’s assassination. These papers are a rich resource for examining what the public knew about the crime as well as how the nation responded to the president’s death. Displaying this information on a timeline can provide a visual snapshot of public knowledge about the crime.

Construct the base of a timeline of the month following the assassination of President Lincoln. Remember that every day should have the same amount of space on the timeline. Next, look for facts about the assassination reported in The New York Times or other newspapers. For each day, record three facts about the assassination that were published that day; choose the facts you think are most significant or interesting. If a later newspaper shows that an earlier fact you recorded was inaccurate, highlight the inaccurate information on the timeline and draw an arrow connecting that entry with the new information.

After you complete your work, examine it carefully. What does the timeline show about the development of public understanding of the assassination? Does anything about the information you have entered on the timeline surprise you? Why?

Using the same newspapers, construct a second timeline for the same time span. This timeline might show the country’s response to the president’s death or other news stories happening at the same time. What insight does completing the second timeline provide? How does comparing the two timelines help you understand this very specific time in U.S. history? Explain your answer.

Historical Comprehension: Using Data Presented in Charts

Abraham Lincoln, first elected to the Illinois legislature in 1834, served four terms, but decided not to run for a fifth term in 1842. A table in the collection presents data about the members of the legislature in Lincoln’s last term.

When studying a table, whether it presents historical or current data, the title and the column headings can tell you what kind of data the table presents. The next step is examining the data in the various categories (columns); in examining the data, look for patterns and identify interesting “outliers” (cases that don’t fit the patterns). You may find it useful to tally data for subcategories of information (for example, the number of legislators in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s) or graph or map some of the data (for example, show the home states of the legislators on a map of the United States in 1840). Use the results of your analysis to form generalizations.

Study the chart of data on the 12th General Assembly of the State of Illinois and answer these questions:

  • What does the title of the table tell you about the data presented?
  • Why does the table have two sections?
  • What information does the table provide on each member of the legislature? Why do you think people in the 1840s were interested in where legislators were born (nativity)? How interested would today’s reader be in knowing that information? Consider why the information in each column was noteworthy in 1840 and whether it would be noteworthy today.
  • What is the most common profession practiced by members of the legislature? The second most common profession? What other professions are represented? What generalization might this data suggest?
  • What other generalizations might you draw based on the data in this table?
  • Would you say Lincoln was typical or atypical of members of the Illinois General Assembly in 1840? Explain your answer.

If you were to construct a table of information about members of your state’s legislators today, what categories of information would you include? Why? Conduct research to create a table about your state legislators. Trade tables with a classmate and determine what generalizations each of you can make based on the other’s table.

Historical Comprehension: Using Correspondence to Develop Historical Perspective

General William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 “March to the Sea” through Georgia devastated the Confederacy, inflicting physical, financial, and psychological damage. Many history books have described this military campaign in detail; check your history text’s coverage of this campaign to find out what historians generally say about it. What insights does the text’s coverage give you into General Sherman’s thinking and that of other military leaders?

A document in the Lincolniana collection sheds a different light on the “March to the Sea.” A letter from General Sherman to R.U. Johnson, an editor at Century Magazine, shows the campaign from the perspective of its leader. In the letter, Sherman quotes at length a letter he received from President Lincoln and reflects on the significance of the letter to him:

So highly do I prize this testimonial that I preserve Mr. Lincoln’s letter, every word in his own hand writing, unto this day; and if I know myself I believe on receiving it I experienced more satisfaction in giving to his over burdened and weary soul one gleam of satisfaction and happiness, than one selfish pride in an achievement which has given me among men a larger measure of favor than any single act of war.

From “Letter to R. U. Johnson from William Tecumseh Sherman, December 22, 1886,” images 4 and 5

Read the entire Sherman letter, trying to see the events discussed from Sherman’s point of view.

  • Why was General Sherman writing to R.U. Johnson? What reason did he give for declining the invitation extended by Johnson? In his position, what decision would you have made?
  • What were President Lincoln’s concerns as the “March to the Sea” began? How did he feel about the outcome of the campaign?
  • Why do you think Sherman prized Lincoln’s letter so highly? What, if anything, does it tell you about his character?
  • General Sherman wrote that “every honest man sees things from a different point of view, and can only write earnestly what he personally believes.” According to this comment, what was his view of historical perspective? How does your view of historical perspective compare to his?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Assessing the Historical Record

Think about an hour of your typical day at school. What records of this hour are created? Think about evidence you create as well as evidence held by the school. Which of these pieces of evidence are most likely to be accessible years from now? What events in the hour are not recorded in any way?

Now consider the following item from a newspaper published about two weeks after General Ulysses S. Grant was elected president:

One of General Grant’s first acts upon arriving at his headquarters in Washington was to order the destruction of several bushels of letters which have been sent to him in relation to officers &c., which had been opened and briefed by his staff. No record of them was kept.

From “Father Abraham, [Newspaper] November 20, 1868,” image 1

  • Why do you think General Grant ordered the destruction of the letters? Do you think he was concerned about the historical record?
  • What does this item tell you about the limits of the historical record?
  • In what other ways do you think evidence of the past has been lost or destroyed?
  • Think about the documents that are available in this collection. (Keep in mind that only part of the collection is online and this is only one collection.) What parts of Lincoln’s career or life are especially well documented? What parts of his career or life would you predict are less well documented? What might account for limits on the historical record of these aspects of Lincoln’s career or life?
  • How do you think the limits on the historical record shape our understanding of the past?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Considering Media Bias

Today, critics of the news media often accuse newspapers and television news programs of bias. Earlier in our nation’s history, many newspapers were openly biased; journalistic “objectivity” was not even a recognized goal of the profession. Evidence of engrained bias is clear in the newspapers in this collection. Consider the following statement from the Alton, Illinois, Spectator:

We deem it proper, at this time, to make an exposition of the course we intend to pursue, and of the PRINCIPLES we shall advocate.

We are for a LIBERAL construction of the Constitution, as it now is—one that shall develop the GENIUS of our REPUBLIC, and equally foster and protect her liberal INSTITUTIONS—we believe in the self-government of the PEOPLE; in a FREE-TRADE, and the disseveration of the Government from the Traffic and Commerce of the Country. . . .

We are for the freedom of SPEECH, and the Liberty of the Press, and a universal SUFFRAGE.

From “The Alton Spectator, December 13, 1838,” image 1, column 3

Read the remainder of this statement from the publisher of The Alton Spectator.

  • What general principles does the publisher pledge to support?
  • On what specific issues does the publisher state a position?
  • With what founder of the United States does the newspaper agree? Whose ideas does it oppose?
  • Read the more of the December 13, 1838, issue of The Alton Spectator. What evidence do you find evidence of the stated biases in other stories?
  • What do you think of a newspaper publishing an explanation of its biases? Would you recommend such a practice for media sources today? Why or why not?

Read the political news in the Elmira [New York] Daily Advertiser of October 24, 1860. What biases do you detect in the coverage? Write a statement from the publisher of the Elmira Daily Advertiser explaining the paper’s positions.

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making: Analyzing Values and Points of View

Until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, African Americans were not officially allowed to serve in the Union Army. By the end of the war, approximately 186,000 African American soldiers had served. Think about some of the reasons an African American might choose to fight for the Union.

Army recruiters tried to appeal to the concerns and interests of African Americans. Examine the image below. Also read the document, “Men of color to arms! Now or never!” and examine the sheet music for “We’ll Fight for Uncle Abe.” (Remember that minstrel songs were written by whites, using pseudo-black dialect.)

How did the creators of these documents try to convince African Americans to join the Union forces? What values and concerns did they appeal to? If you had been an African American man in 1864, would you have enlisted in the Army? Why or why not?


Arts & Humanities


A portrait is a painted or photographic likeness of a person. A good portrait not only captures the person’s appearance but also conveys something about his or her character. Lighting, the person’s pose and where his or her gaze is directed, props, clothing, and backgrounds are some of the ways in which a portraitist can convey character

The following are just some of the portraits of Abraham Lincoln presented in the collection:

More portraits can be found in the Portraits of Lincoln gallery or by conducting a Keyword search using the search term Lincoln portrait.

Closely examine several Lincoln portraits. Select both photographic and artistic renderings. Study how Lincoln was posed, where he was looking (at the camera or artist, off into the distance, at another object in the picture), which features were most dominant, the lighting used, and his facial expression. Study the background and any other objects shown in the pictures. Then answer the following questions.

  • What differences in the portraits are most significant to you? Why?
  • What character traits do the portraits convey about Lincoln? Is there a trait that you think all of the portraits illustrate? What differences do the portraits show?
  • Select a portrait and write a caption for it explaining why you think it is an excellent example of the art of portraiture.

Political Cartoons

Political cartoons have been published in the United States since the mid-1700s. Cartoonists raise questions and make points in ways that may appeal to people who would not read or be moved by an essay. Cartoonists use a variety of tools and techniques to amuse, provoke, and inform: symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy, and irony. Learn more about these tools and techniques by consulting the Cartoon Analysis Guide.

This collection includes numerous nineteenth century political cartoons, including:

Select two or three of these cartoons or conduct a Keyword search using the term cartoon to locate more political cartoons. Select at least two and use the Cartoon Analysis Guide to examine the cartoons. What is each cartoon’s message? Which tools and techniques do the cartoonists use to convey their points? How effective do you think the cartoons are in making their points?

Graphic Design

In the middle of the nineteenth century, graphic design, using images, words, and ideas to communicate visually, was very different than it is today. Design was used in many of the same ways then as it is now, such as to sell products and to promote political causes.

The digitized material includes a collection of more than 20 envelopes with political illustrations. Look carefully at five or six of the envelopes.

  • How are illustrations, type, shapes, and color used on the envelopes?
  • What similarities do you see between these designs and contemporary graphic design? What differences do you see? How do you account for the differences?
  • In your opinion, which design is most eye-catching? Most appealing over all? Most persuasive?

Design two envelopes for a current political leader whom you respect. Design one to appeal to what you believe nineteenth-century voters would have enjoyed and one to appeal to current voters.


An allegory is an extended metaphor, a story in which fictionalized characters and events stand for other people, things, events, or ideas. Fables are short allegories; The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is a historic example of an allegory; examples that are more contemporary include The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

“'Uncle Abe' and the Rebellious Boys” presents a humorous allegory in free verse about a fictional Lincoln faced with some children stealing his apples:

When “Uncle Abe” took a four years lease of "Uncle Sam's Farm," he found a host of rebellious boys on the trees stealing apples,
Seeing the injury they were doing, he most respectfully requested them to come down.
Upon hearing his solicitation, the saucy blockheads told him plainly they would not.

From “'Uncle Abe' and the rebellious boys.”

  • Who might the “rebellious boys” in this story stand for? What historical events are the real subject of this allegory?
  • What is the tone of this allegory? Why would the writer use such a tone with this subject matter?
  • What is the purpose of this allegory?
  • Why would someone choose to express ideas and opinions through an allegory?

Letters of Condolence

Different kinds of letters require different writing styles. A condolence letter—one written to comfort a person who is grieving a loss—has a very special purpose and audience and thus requires a special approach or writing style.

Writing a good condolence letter may be particularly challenging when writing to or about someone you do not know personally. Consider this excerpt from a condolence letter Lincoln wrote:

Executive Mansion
Washington, Nov 21, 1864

To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass,

Dear Madame

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously in the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.

From “The Celebrated ‘Bixby’ Letter”

Read the remainder of the letter and answer these questions.

  • What bereavement had the person receiving this letter experienced?
  • Did the president know about Mrs. Bixby and her sons? How did this affect what he was able to say in his letter?
  • Overall, how effecive do you think this was as a letter of condolence?

Use the same questions to analyze the letter of condolence from Queen Victoria to Mary Todd Lincoln.

Art of Remembrance

When someone famous dies, artists of all types—sculptors, painters, architects, poets, orators, composers, and more—often create works in honor of that person. Here are links to a few memorial works of art or descriptions of such works:

Choose at least three examples of the art of remembrance. You may select from those listed above or find additional items using such search terms as mourning or tribute. Choose one work that represents an art form you particularly like. Choose one that represents an art form that is less familiar to you. Choose a third work that is different from the first two you selected. Use the following questions to analyze each work:

  • What type of work is this?
  • What aspects of Lincoln’s achievements or character does the work highlight? Do you think these are the most significant aspects of Lincoln’s achievements or character?
  • Do you think the work is an appropriate memorial to Lincoln? Would it prompt the kind of remembrance you think a memorial work should prompt?
  • Which work do you find most effective in stimulating viewers/readers to remember significant aspects of Lincoln’s life? Explain your answer.