Teach PA History
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Public Views of Lincoln
Equipment & Supplies
  • Paper, pencils, overhead, transparencies of political cartoons, large chart


Download and copy the combined worksheets for this lesson.

Session #1

1. Students will review and list what they already know about the life of Abraham Lincoln.

2. Students will list on a second chart, what they want to know about the life of Lincoln.

Focus questions to help students develop a background to interpret the political cartoons are:

  • What did Abraham Lincoln look like? Did he have any unique features that set him apart? What was his boyhood like?

  • What problems did our country face when Lincoln was our President? (slavery issue, secession of Confederate states, Civil War)

  • What were Lincoln's political beliefs?

  • What did people believe about Lincoln?

  • Who disagreed with Lincoln?

  • Who was the president from Pennsylvania who preceded Lincoln?

  • How did Lincoln die?

Sessions #2, #3, #4

(This is an estimate of the time this read-aloud will take.)

1. Students will read, or teacher will read-aloud from Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman, New York: Scholastic Press, 1987. (Teachers may wish to substitute another book, such as The Abraham Lincoln Joke Book by Beatrice de Regniers, to provide an overview of the life of Abraham Lincoln.)

2. An exceptional alternative source of information for teachers about the life of Abraham Lincoln online can be found at The History Place:

3. As material is read, students will create a timeline of events with a focus on the Presidential race, the Presidency during the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination (1860-1865).

4. Return to focus questions in Session #1, to clarify what students have learned after their readings about Lincoln.

Session #5

1. As a whole group, students will interpret and analyze political cartoon Primary Source #1: "Three to One You Don't Get It". Model how to use the same questions students will have on Worksheet #1: "Funny or Exaggerated?" an analysis of a political cartoon.

2. Distribute Worksheet #1 "Funny or Exaggerated?" for students to complete as they analyze the remaining six cartoons.

3. In pairs, students will analyze cartoons labeled Primary Sources #2-#7. These political cartoons range from the period during the Lincoln Presidential race, through the Civil War, and after his assassination (1860-1865). Possible interpretations of these cartoons might include:

Source #1 "Three to One You Don't Get It"-1860, Vanity Fair, September 1, 1860, p.117. Lincoln as the common man, Buchanan as a scared little dog teasing Lincoln.

Possible interpretation: Lincoln, although a well-to-do lawyer, is pictured as a common man in working clothes. The split rails he is carrying are symbols of his rural and impoverished boyhood. Buchanan, the President preceding Lincoln, is pictured as a small, frightened dog, guarding the White House.

Source #2 "The Coming Man's Presidential Career, a la Blondin"–1860, Harper's Weekly, August 25, 1860, p. 544. Lincoln's balancing act as incoming president.

Possible interpretation: Charles Blondin was a famous tightrope walker who crossed B=Niagara Falls in the 1850s. The cartoon may be reminding the public the Republican party opposes the slavery issue. This abolitionist issue is a burden on Lincoln's shoulders as he seeks the Presidency. But the Constitution serves to balance Lincoln and keep him steady so that he can reach his goal.

Source #3 "Long Abraham Lincoln a Little Longer"–1864, Harper's Weekly, November 26, 1864, p. 768. Re-election elevated Lincoln's stature higher in eyes of public

Possible interpretation: Lincoln has been re-elected President. His victory has elevated him in the eyes of the public. His already tall stature has become even larger.

Source #4 "Union and Liberty! Union and Slavery!" M.W. Siebert, New York, 1864. 1864 election cartoon comparing Lincoln to Jefferson Davis.

Possible interpretation: Lincoln is shaking hands with a working man as children, both white and of color, play in front of a school house, a symbol of education for all. Jefferson Davis is shaking hands with George McClellan. If McClellan should be elected, he would support the continuation of slavery, hence the slave on the auction block in the background.

Source #5: "The True Issue or That's What's the Matter" –1864, appeared in New York World, Library of Congress, 1864. Lincoln and Davis tearing map of US apart with McClellan intervening

Possible interpretation: Presidential candidate George McClellan is portrayed as the mediator between Lincoln (Union) and Jefferson Davis (Confederate) as the two men play tug-of-war with a map of the United States.

Source #6:"Commander-in-Chief" - 1864, Library of Congress, 1864. Lincoln jokes on battlefield oblivious to suffering surrounding him

Possible interpretation: This is a strongly anti-Lincoln cartoon. Some regarded Lincoln as callous to the misery of the Union troops. Some had reported that he had joked on the field after the Battle of Antietam.

Source #7: "Columbia Mourns after Lincoln's Death" -1865, Harpers Weekly, April 29, 1865

Possible interpretation: Miss Columbia (the nation) mourns the passing of President Lincoln.

Session #6

1. Students will choose one of their interpretations of cartoons to share with the whole group.

2. Class will discuss the following questions:

  • How did the public view Lincoln before he became President?

  • How did the public view him during the Civil War?

  • How did the public view changed from Lincoln's inauguration, to his Presidency, and finally, after his assassination?

  • What if Lincoln had lived to serve his full term as President? How do you think people would have viewed him then? What do you think would have been different in the world?

3. On large chart, have students create a timeline on which they log:

  • Cartoon title

  • Cartoon date

  • Public view of Abraham Lincoln

Session #7

1. As an assessment tool, students will create letters to Abraham Lincoln's political cartoonists in which they will write in Lincoln's voice his personal response to three of the political cartoons about him.

Teachers may want to offer a second choice to those students who express themselves well through art. This assessment could take the form of a student-created political cartoon. Tell students that Mr. Lincoln would like respond to the cartoonists who have been publishing pictures of him. So Lincoln hires his own cartoonist–you! Students are to create a political cartoon that Mr. Lincoln would approve.

2. If students are writing letters, distribute Worksheet #2: "Dear Sir, Here's What I've Been Thinking: Mr. Lincoln's Response to His Political Cartoonists" to provide scaffolding as students write how they think Lincoln would have responded to his cartoonists.

3. Distribute rubric before students write to clarify assessment expectations.

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