I just finished putting the finishing touches on a test that covers William Gienapp’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, which we finished reading this week. The book was a huge success, in large part because Lincoln is such an attractive historical figure to study. We read many of his letters and speeches and really tried to work through his changing views on race and slavery. With the bicentennial set for next year the country is no doubt going to be saturated with commentary that will have little to do with serious analytical thinking. I like to think that most of my students are now prepared to wade through much of this nonsense. They can steer clear of the ahistorical silliness of Thomas DiLorenzo and other Lincoln haters as well as the overly glorified images that students are introduced to in grade school. As I learned when we first got started with Lincoln many of my students literally believed that his life inevitably led to the freeing of the slaves.
One way that I’ve been able to engage the enthusiasm level for the secondary sources used thus far is by the sophistication of their questions. Students struggled to understand the intersection between military affairs and political concerns that Lincoln juggled up to the issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. While it dispelled them of their narrow emancipationist view of Lincoln it did bring them to a place where they could more clearly comprehend his leadership style and political shrewdness. As a way to more clearly understand the road to emancipation and Lincoln’s changing views on race and slavery I had students create timelines which involved having to post a set of quotations along with relevant events. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what would come of it, but it turned out that having everything neatly arranged on a timeline highlighted the contingency of events as well as the causal relationship between events. Click here, here, and here for a few examples.
I do have a few concerns that have to do with the scope of our study of the Civil War and wartime Reconstruction. If we were using the traditional textbook we would clearly have discussed the war in much broader terms, especially in reference to the Confederate experience. As it stands my students have been introduced to the important public and military leaders in the Confederacy and have a basic understanding of some of the central themes. This has been a concern throughout the year, but I am growing more comfortable with the idea that what they are learning is more meaningful and is much more likely to lead to additional reading at some point down the road. Next week we will spend a few days looking at Reconstruction and then it is on to a short biography of Franklin Roosevelt by Roy Jenkins, a survey of the Cold War by Ralph Levering, and Harvard Sitkoff’s book on race and the Civil Rights Movement.