In the excitement over the new “Lincoln” movie and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning and truly mesmerizing performance as Abraham Lincoln, it is easy to overlook one of the very best sources of information on Lincoln’s life –Lincoln himself. Abraham Lincoln never kept a diary or wrote a memoir, but he did craft a few, brief autobiographical sketches. The most important of these efforts came in December 1859 at the request of a Pennsylvania newspaper (Chester County Times) that was preparing a series on potential Republican nominees for president in 1860. Joseph J. Lewis, publisher of the Chester Times asked a mutual friend, Bloomington, Illinois attorney (and Pennsylvania native) Jesse W. Fell, to approach Lincoln for information that could be used to craft a profile.
What Lincoln produced was a 600-word document that reveals a striking amount about his background and style. You can access a written transcript of the sketch (along with the equally revealing cover letter to Fell, where Honest Abe states confidentially, “Of course it must not appear to have been written by myself.”) along with a special audio version of the documents created for the House Divided Project by noted actor and Dickinson College theatre professor Todd Wronski. [NOTE: Just right-click on this audio link and select “Save Link As…” in order to download the audio file to your computer / network).
For a Common Core-aligned assignment, students should read and listen to Lincoln’s autobiographical sketch and prepare a short informational essay that summarizes Lincoln’s life story using Lincoln’s own words. After they have completed their essays and discussed them in class, teachers should show clips from Matthew Pinsker’s college-level discussion of Lincoln’s autobiographical sketch, which was filmed by C-SPAN’s American History TV in 2010.
For an extension exercise designed to teach research skills online, students should then read a clickable excerpt from Michael Burlingame’s Lincoln Prize-winning biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008), which has been posted at Journal Divided and further analyzes other efforts to craft Lincoln’s biography when he emerged as a presidential candidate in 1860. What kinds of choices did Lincoln and his campaign biographers make when framing the main story of his life? What do their choices reveal about what Professor Pinsker calls the “idiom” of nineteenth-century American politics?
Common Core Alignments
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.5 Analyze how a text uses structure to emphasize key points or advance an explanation or analysis.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.