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Rhetoric and Rebellion: A Look at Primary Source Excerpts to Understand Lincoln’s Challenges

By Sarah Degnan Moje

Lincoln faced many challenges as he became president in 1861. Arguments about slavery, secession and states rights had been bubbling up for years. This lesson examines primary sources on Nat Turner and John Brown in order to set the stage for studying the Civil War.

Nat Turner Woodcut For those who never engage in an in depth study of American History, a history textbook’s summation can at times make it sound like this: “The South had slaves. The North did not. Lincoln took office. He did not believe in slavery. The South seceded. We fought them and won.” Or, even if the book offers a much more detailed analysis, that six sentence summation is perhaps what many students walk away with. For most middle and high school students, there is no firm understanding of the challenge Lincoln was facing as he stood to take his oath of office. For years, there had been rebellions breaking out and fights on the floor of the Senate and the House over the hot button issues of slavery and secession.

As classrooms become more and more entrenched in the Common Core, it is important to try and incorporate primary source documents into every day lessons as much as possible. However, using brief excerpts from varied sources in a given time period can provide students with an overview and broad scope of what the crisis in America was from the late 1840’s to the outbreak of the Civil War.

John Brown In order to fully understand Lincoln, one needs at least a brief look at Nat Turner’s Rebellion, John Brown’s Raid, and then move into an introductory overview of the Civil War. Each of these can be examined using various primary source excerpts, shortened enough to not overwhelm students. They will walk away with a better understanding of the challenges of our 16th president and with a great respect for all he did to preserve America. Use the downloads below to launch your lessons on the Civil War.

Nat Turner's Rebellion Sources & Questions

John Brown's Raid Sources & Questions

Overview of the Civil War Power Point