At Quora, the social question & answer website, we have posted the following essential question to help teachers and students organize their thoughts on some of the documents within the Father Abraham theme:
You can view (and vote) on all of the answers to this question at Quora, which is a free site but one that requires registration. Or you can see excerpts from some of the most thought-provoking answers below:
Mary Beth Donnelly
You can’t teach Lincoln’s nationalism without first teaching students what this word means. Defined as “loyalty and devotion to a nation” by Merriam Webster, we should start by asking our students what nationalism means to them and how they express it. Do we show our nationalism at school? (If so, is it saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning? Is it learning about the Revolutionary War?) Do we display nationalism outside of school? (Is it eating hot dogs and watching fireworks on July 4? Is it standing up when we hear the “Star Spangled Banner”?) Do we demonstrate nationalism through our career choices and decisions? (Is it joining the military when we reach adulthood? Is it running for office?) In other words, do we have a concrete idea of what nationalism means—or do we just know it when we see it? Always wanting my students to consider a different perspective and to look beyond easy answers, an introductory conversation on this topic should reveal that what nationalism looks like “in action” is subjective and thus, inherently debatable.
I have long been fascinated by Lincoln’s insistence that secession did not actually occur. This has always struck me as odd, that a man with such a realistic understanding of the world around him might deny a factual reality that was staring him in the face. I had assumed Lincoln did not really mean what he was saying, that he did understand all along that a new government was formed, and that he toed this rhetorical line only because he understood doing so made a Union victory more likely, that men could be more effectively rallied to the cause. But, I now think it more likely that Lincoln truly believed what he was saying all along, that the Confederacy was at its heart an act of treason rather than of secession. We see this in Lincoln’s First Inaugural in 1861 (“no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination … in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken….”). We see this still in Lincoln’s indirect communication with Jefferson Davis (“…a view to securing peace to the people of our one common country.”). But if this was an act of treason, it was an act of treason that stood a good chance of succeeding. Had the election of 1864 gone to the Democratic candidate–if General McClellan became President McClellan–there would have been two nations, not one. Lincoln certainly recognized this.
As president, Lincoln placed nationalism above all other priorities. Lincoln’s nationalism, though, should not be defined in terms of seeing ones nation as superior to all others, but Lincoln was motivated by an American national identity, the “Union,” that focused on the will of the people through democratic elections and the ability of free people to be compensated for their labor. Lincoln’s devotion to these causes was almost a religion, it trumped all other considerations during his presidency. For students to understand Lincoln, they must understand what prompted him to run for president, commit to war, run for re-election, and embark on plan for emancipation.
In teaching Lincoln’s nationalism, I think one should draw upon Lincoln “the teacher.” Some might argue these are simply Lincoln’s characteristics as a great leader. To me, there is a strong correlation between teaching and leadership! While we didn’t spend as much time on Lincoln’s leadership characteristics as I would have hoped, his ability to establish in his own mind a clear vision, then communicate that vision, are critical to his success. In the previous paragraph I referenced Lincoln’s focus; I now point to the Gettysburg Address as his attempt to mobilize our nation’s “learners” by communicating his vision.