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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

[3228] Timothy O’Sullivan, Incidents of the War. A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July, 1863, courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-B8184-7964-A DLC].

Born to impoverished parents in backwoods Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln rose to become the sixteenth president of the United States. His remarkable story of success, his achievements in guiding the country through the Civil War, and his tragic death have afforded him iconic stature within the annals of American history and made him a hero to many. Lincoln had little formal schooling and was mostly self-educated, eventually training himself in the law. After setting up a successful legal practice in Illinois, he became interested in politics and was elected first to the state legislature and later to the U.S. Congress in 1846.

Lincoln’s election to the presidency was the result of the complicated American political situation of the 1840s and 1850s, centered on the divisive issue of slavery. While Lincoln is often celebrated for his decision to free the slaves, he in fact came to his commitment to total emancipation only by degrees. Never an actual supporter of slavery, he was still somewhat ambivalent about its place within the country through much of his career: he fought to ban it from the western territories and new states but was reluctant to advocate abolition within the South itself. Lincoln’s primary commitment was always to the preservation of the Union, and he was willing to reject abolitionist measures if they seemed to threaten that goal. Despite his attempts to seem flexible and moderate on the issue of slavery, however, his election to the presidency in 1860 polarized the nation. Seven southern states immediately seceded to form the Confederacy. Within a month of Lincoln’s inauguration, the Civil War had begun. By 1863, Lincoln was ready to adopt a more radical position and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, finally committing the Union to the total abolition of slavery.

Lincoln’s extraordinary skills as a writer and orator were crucial to his political successes and his ability to lead the country effectively through the war. In the early speeches of his career, he worked to connect with the “common man” in the audience, employing a clear, almost legalistic, logic and a satirical sense of humor. As he grew in confidence as a statesman, his speeches retained their clarity but became more powerful and resonant, often drawing upon biblical references and even the cadences of biblical prose. By turning to Christian rhetoric, Lincoln tried to unite the bitterly divided American populace and to garner popular support for a war that turned out to be longer and bloodier than anyone had anticipated. Since Lincoln’s tragic assassination one month into his second term in office in 1865, his speeches have come to be revered as enduring expressions of formative American cultural ideals.

Teaching Tips

  • In order to appreciate the significance of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” students should have some background on the battle of Gettysburg. Fought in early July 1863, Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, with a total of 51,000 casualties–more men died at Gettysburg than in any other battle on North American soil before or since. Gettysburg marked an important turning point in the Civil War; the Confederate Army never recovered from the heavy losses it suffered there. After giving students this background, ask them to think about how Lincoln grapples with the scope and nature of Gettysburg as a national tragedy in his address. You might have them consider how this speech compares with other presidential speeches following catastrophic events (such as Franklin Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speech, or George W. Bush’s responses to September 11, 2001).
  • Ask students to pay attention to the changes in Lincoln’s rhetorical treatment of slavery between the “House Divided” speech (1858) and the “Second Inaugural” (1865). While the earlier speech is a rigorously logical, legalistic argument for keeping slavery out of the West, the “Second Inaugural” claims that slavery is an evil in the eyes of God and that the emancipation of the slaves was wrought by divine will. Ask students which speech they find more powerful or persuasive. Ask them to consider the different historical circumstances in which these two speeches were composed.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kind of audience does Lincoln assume will be listening to his speeches? How do you think nineteenth-century audiences might have been different from audiences today?
  2. Context: Why do you think Lincoln chose the verse from the New Testament “A house divided upon itself cannot stand” (Luke 11.17) as the basis for his speech? What significance would this image of a threatened home have for nineteenth-century Americans? How might it have resonated with American ideals of domesticity?
  3. Context: Interestingly, Lincoln’s now celebrated speech was not well received when he first delivered it on the battlefield at Gettysburg in November 1863. Apparently, it seemed too concise and simple to the audience, which preferred Edward Everett’s lengthy two-hour sermon. Why do you think the speech was unsuccessful when Lincoln delivered it? Today the “Gettysburg Address” is often viewed as a model of eloquence. Why has it gained in popularity over time?
  4. Exploration: Today Lincoln is something of an American cultural icon–he is the subject of imposing monuments and his face even circulates on our money. What does Lincoln represent to contemporary Americans? Why is he viewed as such an important president? How does Lincoln’s position within American cultural mythology compare to what you know about his biography and political choices? What kinds of myths are important to Lincoln’s image?
  5. Exploration: The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., is based upon one of the most famous architectural monuments in the world, the temple to Athena found on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Why would the architects of the Lincoln Memorial want to use the Parthenon as a model? What does this allusion signify about Lincoln and about America? What does it mean that inside we find Lincoln seated rather than the gold and ivory statue of Athena?
  6. Exploration: Read “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Walt Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln. What does Whitman admire about Lincoln? Do Lincoln’s speeches live up to this eulogy?

Selected Archive Items

[1708] Brady National Photographic Art Gallery, Abraham Lincoln (1864),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-B816-1321].
This portrait photograph from January 1864, between the Gettysburg address and the second inaugural address, resembles most memorial images.

[1803] Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation (1863),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
This 1863 proclamation emancipated slaves held in areas in rebellion against the United States, but not those in Union-controlled areas.

[3228] Timothy O’Sullivan, Incidents of the War. A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July, 1863,
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-B8184-7964-A DLC].
Dead Federal soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Graphic war photographs like this one inspired postwar literary realism.

[7163] Esther Bubley, Inside the Lincoln Memorial (1943),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USW3-040346-D].
After his assassination, Abraham Lincoln’s image became iconic in the North and among African Americans, through ceremonies, popular songs and prints, statuary, and poetry such as Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6