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Teaching American History: The Gettysburg Address

Lincoln (highlighted) at Gettysburg, 1863

The previous installation of this blog focused on Lincoln’s view of the nature of the Civil War.  Looking at his 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, one may come to the conclusion that Lincoln’s only purpose was to preserve the Union.  There is more to the story, however.

Later that year, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  In essence, this document declared that slaves held in the areas of rebellion would be freed upon the new year.  Some may say that this proves Lincoln sought emancipation as a war goal–a goal that was as important to him as the preservation of the Union.  Others may more cynically state that Lincoln had no desire to interfere with the institution of slavery.  He only meant to free certain slaves in order to speed the war’s end.  Therefore he was not dedicated to equality.  Both sides have their proponents and merits.

The study of another famous document that was produced after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued officially on January 1, 1863 may be instructive.  The Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in American–and perhaps world–history.  But what does it have to say about the issue of the nature of the war?

Have your students read this document carefully.  Does the Gettysburg Address tell us anything about Lincoln’s view of the nature of the war?  How does he frame the concept of “liberty”?    What does he mean by “new birth of freedom”?  Answering these questions may help shed a different light on the subject of Lincoln’s commitment to equality of the races.


Teaching American History: Lincoln on the Nature of the War

Movie Poster for Stephen Spielberg's 2012 flim "Lincoln"

The release of Spielberg’s epic movie Lincoln brings up an intriguing question.  Was Lincoln as adamantly dedicated to the emancipation of slaves as the movie suggests?  After all, there are countless websites, media outlets, and historians that claim Lincoln only desired emancipation, not for humanitarian purposes, not for the sake of those enslaved nor for the sake of egalitarianism, but only as a means to end the Civil War.  Others, like this Time magazine book review, have raised the question of whether Lincoln was an outright racist!

When teaching the history of the Civil War, especially in light of Lincoln hitting the theaters recently, these questions pertaining to Lincoln’s devotion to the cause of abolition are highly pertinent.  An effective way for teachers to delve into the question of the Lincoln’s publicly-stated views on the nature of the war is to have students read the actual words of the man himself!

The Teaching American History website is a treasure trove of historical documents from the American past.  Doing a simple search within this site for a letter Lincoln wrote in August 1862 to New York editor Horace Greeley can start learners down the path of answering these questions for themselves.

Note: it is highly important that students understand the historical context of this letter.  It would seem on the surface to imply that Lincoln’s sole purpose in waging the war was to preserve the Union.  Certainly that was his publicly-stated goal up to August 1862.  However, note that the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was written about one month later.  Lincoln had been waiting for a good news from the battlefield to release such a statement (the near-draw at Antietam had to suffice, won in late September 1862).

Looking at these two documents, students may bring up the point that it does not seem that Lincoln was publicly professing full commitment to black equality.  The nature of the war, they may say in so many words, was only to preserve the Union, and any talk of emancipation seemed to be only geared toward that end.  They may have a point.  Leave them with that thought at the end of your time in class with them.  Tune in to the next installment on this blog for further food-for-thought.

Civil War Animated: The Battle of Fredericksburg


The Battle of Fredericksburg by Kurz and Allison

The release of the cinematic masterpiece, Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, is a boon for history teachers nationwide.  This movie will certainly be nominated for multiple Academy Awards and draw countless millions to theaters.  Even middle and high school students have been caught up in the rush to see this mature, adult-targeted film.  History teachers have a grand opportunity to capture the hype surrounding the movie to engage learners who otherwise may not be as accessible.

If you are a teacher that attempts to align your teaching calendar with anniversaries of historical events, you may want to use this renewed interest in all-things-Civil-War to utilize the Civil War Animated website.  Coming soon, in mid-December, is the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg.  The Civil War Animated website is a tremendous tool for engaging learners.  It not only provides poignant, relevant historical context of the war’s battles, but it also allows students to interact with animated battle maps.  For your students that love military history (and even those who may loath it), there are very few websites constructed that can quite as effectively capture their attention

The website itself provides a brief statement highlighting historical context and battle outcomes:

Following the indecisive Battle of Antietam Creek, President Lincoln replaces General George McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside immediately submits a plan to race Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Fredericksburg and on to Richmond. Lincoln accepts the plan and the Army of the Potomac marches to Fredericksburg. But extremely poor planning causes the pontoon bridges for crossing the river to be left at the end of the baggage trains allowing to Lee to concentrate his army and prepare for Burnside’s assault.

After introducing students to the importance, context, and outcome of the battle, the teacher can then direct students to the animations of the battles, found here.  Notice, the animation begins with another historical survey of the battle.  After students have read and internalized this, the teacher can direct them to the actual battle maps.  When students click on “Play,” the animations begin.  The progress of the battle is then animated step-by-step, with helpful narratives displayed and sound effects included.  Fittingly for a history class, the final scene provides excerpts from primary sources that gave contemporary commentary on the battle’s outcome.

C-SPAN: The Electoral College

The White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue--the prize yielded by the result of the Electoral College process.

The last post centered on the Electoral College.  This post expands on that topic, offering a follow-up lesson.  As stated, the Electoral College is often seen as antiquated and is rarely understood by the general public.  The previous post centered on a PBS lesson was beneficial for introducing the subject to students.  C-SPAN has a lesson that can build on the basics of the PBS lesson, as teachers strive to educate students on the topic.

This C-SPAN lesson is advantageous for many reasons.  First, it utilizes C-SPAN videos of previous inaugurations and debates over the utility of the Electoral College.  Second, it challenges students to think on a deeper level  than the PBS lesson.  Lastly, it delves deeper into the Constitution than the PBS lesson and it has the student analyze Hamilton’s Federalist 68.  Taken as a second step, with the PBS lesson being the first, students that have also engaged in this C-SPAN lesson will be much better prepared to not only understand what the Electoral College is and how it works, but also to critically analyze its benefits and drawbacks.

PBS: The Electoral College

The Electoral College certainly provides political pundits the opportunity to hypothesize ad nauseum.

Many students ask the question, “What is the purpose of the Electoral College?”  Questions abound about the utility of the system, about whether it is out-dated, about why America doesn’t elect presidents based on popular vote.  Answers to these questions require research and study.

PBS provides a useful website that includes a lesson plan concerning the basics of the Electoral College and to analyze its role in American politics.  Students are asked to delve into the National Archives site on all things Electoral College in order to understand how the operates, why it was set up that way, and what advantages and disadvantages surround it.  One of the positives of this lesson it that it allows students to draw their own conclusions. One drawback is its link to the Federal Elections Commission.  Essentially, students have to navigate around the FEC site without much direction, and they will end up at the exact same site as the National Archives link provided.

Edsitement: Presidential Inaugurations

The 2009 Presidential Inauguration: President Obama being led through the oath of office by Chief Justice John Roberts

The Election of 2012 is coming to its official close.  The next step on the calendar in the process of selecting a president is Inauguration Day.  Edsitement provides a very creative and thorough examination of all things inaugural.  Titled “Inauguration Day: I Do Solemnly Swear,” this site contains analytical guiding questions, a wide range of materials, and extensive usage of primary sources, all the while asking the student to critically engage the content.  This could be the perfect compliment for teachers wishing to inform students of the importance of this civic ceremony.

There are five activities in this lesson.  They introduce the constitutional requirements for the oath of office (from Article II and the 20th amendment), the Founders’ debate on what phrasing should be included in the oath, and describes the celebrations of different inauguration days. At every step of the process, students are engaged with images and documents from the American past.

Election of 1824: Corruption in Presidential Elections?

Henry Clay: Recipient of Spoils in a Corrupt Bargain?

Edsitement provides a very practical and useful lesson plan for teachers desiring to put current politics into historical contexts.

Controversy was to the Election of 1824 as losing to Ohio State is to Michigan–the first is ingrained into the fabric of the other.  The parties involved were not above descending into the mud-slinging fray.  While the Crawford and Clay camps were not noted as much for this, the Adams and Jackson groups were characterized by piling the political mud on with proverbial shovels.  For example, Jackson’s wife was labeled as an adulteress by Adams’ followers, while Adams was depicted by the Jacksonites as a dainty dandy that wore silk underwear.

It was the result of the election, however, that provided the most controversial substance.  There was no majority winner of electoral votes, so the election was sent to the House to decide.  Clay was out of the running, as he came in fourth.  Crawford died and was, understandably, out of contention.  The election in the House was narrowed down to Adams and Jackson.  The House swung towards Adams, allowing for the first son of a president to win that office.  Soon after inauguration, House speaker Henry Clay, who had been in a unique position to determine the election’s outcome, was named as Adams’ Secretary of State.   The Jacksonites cried “foul!”  They leveled corruption charges at Adams and Clay.

Was there a Corrupt Bargain, as the Jackson camp claimed?  This Edsitement lesson plan can help your students answer this question.  Additionally, with this context in mind, teachers may be able to compare today’s politics and the extent to which they are “clean” to real historical data.

Bare-knuckle Politics: The Election of 1824

Is this scene as confrontational as it seems when viewed in the light of the 1824 campaign?

History teachers could not help but chuckle when they saw this picture from the second presidential debate during the 2012 campaign.  In it, the incumbent Obama and the challenger Romney seemed to be sparring aggressively.  As confrontational as this picture seems, though, history teachers cannot help but laugh when they compare this relatively mild scene to the Election of 1824.

The Election of 1824 spelled the end of the Era of Good Feelings.  During the Monroe administration, it seemed to many Americans that partisan politics has eased significantly.  With the death of the Federalist Party as a formal body, there only appeared to be one political party in operation, that being the party of the Jeffersonian Republicans.  However, partisanship returned in full force when the followers of the two major candidates, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, began spewing vile at each other.  The Adams’ camp leveled charges of adultery, illiteracy, and homicidal violence at the feet of Jackson, whilst the Jacksonites claimed that Adams wore silk underwear, gambled, and had served as a “pimp” for the Russian czar. Indeed, both parties continued to duke it out even after the election, as charges were leveled that Adams had won because of a Corrupt Bargain.

Edsitement is a wonderful resource for teachers.  It includes a digital library full of lesson plans.  Here is one lesson that helps students understand the issues behind the Election of 1824.  Perhaps this lesson can help students have some context for truly partisan campaigns to compare to this current one.

Politics of Fear in Presidential Elections: 1984

"There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear."

Almost every modern presidential campaign has used fear and other emotive tactics to attempt to persuade voters.  The last post on this blog highlighted the fear-mongering of the LBJ camp against Goldwater in the 1964 election.  Democrats are not solely guilty of utilizing this method, however.  Republicans have used fear in political advertisements as well, as seen in the Reagan campaign of 1984.

Reagan’s campaign slogan for 1984 was “Morning in America.”  Most of the televised campaign ads endorsed by the Republicans were upbeat, optimistic, detailing a strong economy and gains on the Cold War front.  One ad, however, was noted for its exploitation of American fear of the Soviets.  The ad was simply called “Bear” and can be viewed here.  The ad opens with a calm, serene narrator speaking about a bear in the woods.  As the commercial progresses, it becomes obvious, through the usage of ominous music and a loud heart-beat sound recording, that the bear is a threat.  Most Americans came to the conclusion that the threat the bear symbolized was the USSR, although the ad never directly stated this.

This ad has been analyzed for its subliminal affect on viewers.  The ominous music coupled with close-up shots of the beast evokes a sense of dread.  Additionally, the heart-beat sound works to intensify feelings of fear.  Notice, as you watch the commercial again and again, how your own heart beat begins to mimic the sound-over.  Further, the fact that the viewer would almost inevitably conclude that the bear symbolizes the Soviets, despite the fact that this only indirectly implied by the commercial, effectively manipulates a person’s ability to jump to his/her own conclusions via inductive reasoning.  Reagan’s landslide victory may not be directly attributable to his lone ad.  However, it demonstrated how masterfully he and his advisers were able to use television to persuade.

Politics of Fear in Presidential Elections: 1964

1964 LBJ Campaign Ad, Peace Little Girl

For teachers who enjoy analyzing media influences on presidential elections, The Living Room Candidate is a very useful site to employ in class.

Presidential campaign ads are often intended to evoke emotive responses from the intended audience.  These televised spots are usually devoid of substance, instead using fear as an agent of persuasion rather than speaking to issues.

In 1964, the Johnson campaign utilized this tactic masterfully.  Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater.  Goldwater represented the conservative backlash against civil rights agitation, against the War on Poverty, and against stalemate in Vietnam.  His campaign slogan was, “In your heart, you know he’s right.”  Ads like this one–Peace Little Girl–attempted to paint Goldwater as a war-monger, who would be quick to pull the nuclear trigger in order to win the conflict in Southeast Asia.  As the ad shows, Johnson played on fears that a nuclear strike against American enemies would lead to massive retaliation and nuclear devastation in America.  Indeed, liberals turned Goldwater’s slogan around, saying instead, “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”  Ads like these helped contribute to Johnson’s landslide victory.

The American Presidency Project: Presidential Approval Ratings

Is it not amazing how a president can be very popular during his time and yet be evaluated downwards in subsequent years, as some have said of Eisenhower?  Is it not equally amazing that some have been so pitifully unpopular that they decide to not run for reelection, as in the case of Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968?

Similarly, sometimes approval ratings mean nothing, electorally speaking, as Truman proved in 1948.

Presidential approval ratings have been tracked since 1941.  The American Presidency Project from UC-Santa Barbara has compiled thorough listings of these statistics since FDR.  The general index can be accessed here.  To view each president’s ratings, simply click on their name in the drop-down box.

Additional statistics for job approval ratings can also be found through other links:

  1. Initial job approval ratings
  2. Approval ratings following the First 100 Days
  3. Final approval ratings

The American Presidency Project: Electoral College and Popular Vote Data

The American Presidency Project is a very detailed web resource for all manners of subjects related to the presidency.  Put on by the University of California at Santa Barbara, this digital library covers topics ranging from presidential approval ratings to party platforms to White House staff budgets.

The upcoming election provides social studies teachers many opportunities for linking the present to the past.  The American Presidency Project offers a detailed set of statistics for past presidential elections.  By visiting this site, teachers and students can glean, compare, contrast, and analyze past presidential election electoral and popular vote tallies.  Additionally, teachers and students can determine which way their own state went in that election, as each election year link has not only whether the state went red or blue that year, but it also has a break-down by state of how many electoral and popular votes went to each candidate.

1892 Electoral College Map

Ashbrook Center: The Importance of Midterm Elections

LBJ Making His "Great Society" Speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1964)

For teachers looking for more content depth when teaching about the Great Society, Professor Andrew Busch’s essay on the midterm elections of 1958 and 1962 provide poignant insight.  The Great Society was the largest expansion by the federal government into the social and economic welfare arenas of America since the New Deal.  While most midterm elections go unnoticed by history teachers, these deserve at least a passing mention, as they saw many liberals elected who would eventually become the cornerstone of the Great Society voting bloc.  This is just one of six essay that Dr. Busch provided concerning midterm elections.  These can be found on the site of Ashland University’s Ashbrook Center.

The College Board: Elections and the Jackson Era

Stump Speaking (1854) by George Caleb Bingham

The common person did not always hold the electoral clout the he does today. Political parties were dominated more by party elites in the Early National era.  One example: the term “King Caucus” refers to the system in which party elites would choose nominees for major national offices.  The common person had little input for nominations.  Additionally, the common man had less of a say in the choice of President.  Electoral College delegates were not required to follow the popular vote tallies–that is, in times and places where the people at large were even permitted to say any role in the choosing of the President.

The Jacksonian Era saw a major shift in the role that the common person played in political campaigns.  Primaries were introduced in this era and participation in them were broaden to include more than just elites.  Thus, “King Caucus” died.  Further, Electoral College delegates were increasingly chosen by the common person.  The common man began, during this time, to be courted for his partisan support.  Political activity increased exponentially, as the people were increasingly engaged at all political levels.  Certainly, by 1840, a more modern system emerged in which two political parties mobilized the masses in order to win political office.

Teachers of Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) are familiar with the document-based question (DBQ).  The College Board, which operates the myriad AP programs, has a website that allows teachers access to many helpful resources concerning the DBQ.

A previous APUSH exam had students analyze the rise of political participation during the Jacksonian Era.  Even if you do not teach APUSH, this website can be a tremendous boon to adding critical thinking into the classroom.  Teachers can give this document set to students to introduce the the question of the rise of political participation during the Jackson Era.

Teachers could then have students analyze the documents using this DBQ Analysis Sheet from APUSH guru Warren Hierl, or can have students write an essay answer to the DBQ.

Additionally, in helping prep students for the DBQ essay, teachers can print these analysis aides for interpreting the documents.  This link also includes a long list of specifically factual information terms that could be useful in providing a breadth of content.  There is also a scoring rubric given.

Finally, this site provides teachers with sample student responses.  Scroll down to the end of this PDF in order to view them.

Reading Like an Historian: Populism and the Election of 1896

The Cross of Gold Speech, with Democrat/Populist champion William Jennings Bryan

The history of third parties is a very interesting study.  Typically, their electoral success is minimal-to-none.  However, some ideas of their platforms are often absorbed by the major parties.  In essence, their legacies are found in some of the policies enacted by administrations of subsequent mainstream politicians.

The Populists were no different.  The late 1800s represented their heyday.  They achieved some success at the state levels through such legislation as Granger laws and by electing some governors.  At the national level, Congress even seated members from their ranks.  They were unable to achieve electoral success in the presidency, however.  Their best chance in this realm came in 1896, when the Democrats nominated a champion of many Populist ideals in trumpet-voiced William Jennings Bryan.  He, however, was defeated soundly by Ohio Republican William McKinley.

Stanford University has a wonderful department in their education school called Stanford History Education Group (SHEG).  SHEG has produced a series of lesson plans, called Reading Like an Historian, that utilizes primary sources as the driving factor behind achieving student interaction with the past.  These inquiry-based lessons are posted on their website.

SHEG’s lesson plan for Populism and the Election of 1896 can be found here.   Accompanying the lesson is also a link to a PowerPoint and a set of primary sources that align with the topic.

Additional lessons from the Gilded Age are also posted on the Reading Like an Historian website.

50 Documents That Tell America’s Story

Required reading for students, teachers, and citizens.

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