Today in History:

Lesson Plan - Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

We Must Not Be Enemies: Lincoln's First Inaugural Address


The President-Elect's life was in danger. An assassination attempt against him would be made as he passed through Baltimore, Maryland. Spirited at midnight onto a train, the former congressman arrived in the nation's capital, his movements carefully guarded. When news leaked out about the secret journey, many citizens feared their new President was a coward.

Coward or not, Abraham Lincoln, now safe in Washington, ignored the advice of his advisors and rode in an open carriage to the Capitol for his inauguration as the sixteenth President of the United States.

The threat to Lincoln and the precautions taken reflect the severity of the crisis occurring at the time of his first inauguration. Lincoln's address on that occasion reflected contemporary events and set the tone for his presidency. The oath of office he took spelled out the nature of his powers and responsibilities.

Help your students understand the historical context and significance of Lincoln's inaugural address through archival documents such as campaign posters, sheet music, vintage photographs and documents. Learn how the resources in EDSITEment-reviewed sites can help you do the same for any President.

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to:


Preparing to Teach this Lesson

Note: This lesson is intended for students who have been introduced previously to President Abraham Lincoln.

Prepare headings for a timeline with the years from 1860 to 1865 and an additional category: Before 1860. Throughout the lesson, as an archival document is used, place it on the timeline.

Review the lesson plan. Download materials as necessary. For Lessons 3-5, select from the list of archival materials those appropriate to your class. The amount of reading required can vary depending on your choices. Many of the archival materials listed are photographs or drawings; most others are authentic documents, some written in Lincoln's handwriting. The teacher explains such documents as necessary; students simply are given the opportunity to see a copy of an authentic original. Students do not read the documents though some may enjoy the task.

Suggested Activities

Lesson 1: "Let Your Whiskers Grow" Lincoln Photographs
Lesson 2: We Must Not Be Enemies
Lesson 3: To Hold, Occupy and Possess the Property
Lesson 4: The Institution of Slavery
Lesson 5: To 'Preserve, Protect, and Defend'
Lesson 6: "The Most Solemn" Oath
Extending the Lesson

Lesson 1 "...let your whiskers grow"
Lincoln Photographs

Post one or more of the Lincoln photos listed below along the timeline. Why is this man, who lived so long ago, so recognizable today?


Lesson 2 We must not be enemies:
Lincoln's Inauguration (March 4, 1861)

In Lesson 1, the students listed issues they thought might be connected to documents from Lincoln's time. Now they get to look for the issues they mentioned.

Show students the last page of Lincoln's first inaugural address from American Memory.

(NOTE: Background information is available through the Library of Congress.)

Read and discuss with the class the following brief excerpts from the address and write the bold-faced key words from the address on the chalkboard. Background information for the teacher is provided below, which you may wish to share with students to strengthen their understanding and analysis of Lincoln's inaugural address.

Were any of these issues mentioned by class members when they made their list in Lesson 1?

(Background information for the teacher: In March of 1861, the eyes of the nation were focused on Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. It was under threat from the new Confederacy, which claimed it. While still in Springfield, Lincoln had secretly asked the chief of the United States army "to either hold, or retake, the forts, as the case may require, at, and after the inauguration.")

Without mentioning Sumter directly, Lincoln reiterated in his inaugural address that:

"The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government."

To avoid further alienating the South, Lincoln declared:

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so...."


(Background information for the teacher: Lincoln declared the North would take no action against the South except in the case of aggression; however, he swore to preserve the Union should such aggression occur.)

In this excerpt, Lincoln directly addresses dissident Southerners:

"In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.... You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend it.'

"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies..."


Students may want to see if they can find the third excerpt in the document. (It's in the typed portion.) They should also notice the handwritten insertions and the typing. Why both? Because Lincoln revised his speech on the advice of William Seward, the future Secretary of State. (Can the students read Lincoln's handwriting? Let volunteers try the first few sentences in the handwritten paragraph at the bottom of the page.)

The complete text of Lincoln's inaugural (and every inaugural address) is available at the EDSITEment resource Presidential Speeches.

Lesson 3 To Hold, Occupy and Possess the Property

(Background information for the teacher: The Confederate states had already declared they were no longer part of the United States before Lincoln became President. But some of the property in the South was owned by the government. What should President Lincoln do? He hoped the Southern states could be brought back into the Union and that war could be avoided.)

Let students decide what they would have done. Should the government:


Lesson 4 The Institution of Slavery

Lincoln was against slavery. Though its abolishment was not a requirement of the Constitution, preserving the Union was. Choose a selection of documents from the following list to present to the class. Students should begin by describing each document. Then, students should determine the point of view any particular document (or the event it describes) expresses about slavery. Then, the document should be posted to the timeline.


Events Preceding Lincoln's Inauguration
Opposition to slavery


Support of slavery: The economy of the South was still dependent on slavery, but an important principle involved in the outbreak of war was whether the federal government had the right to make decisions for states. Remember that Lincoln's address promised not to end slavery in the South because there was no Constitutional authority to do so.


  • From this wanted poster for the return of an escaped slave, available through American Memory, we see the high value (as much as $300, a considerable sum) that was placed on a slave. The reward was greater if the slave had to be removed from the free state of Ohio..

  • An editorial defending slavery used Northern prejudice - as decried in a speech by Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin -- as an argument for slavery.


    (Note: If desired, read only the first two sentences.) It is accessible through the EDSITEment resource Valley of Shadow.


Events After the Inauguration
No slaves were actually freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Complete background information (and an image of the original document) is available through the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom at The Emancipation Proclamation (issued Jan. 1, 1863, composed around Sept. 22, 1862).

Perhaps a greater degree of equality would have been forthcoming had Lincoln completed his presidency. "Letter, Abraham Lincoln to Charles Sumner" outlines the president's belief that the dependents of black and white soldiers should be treated equally (May 19, 1864). A digitized version of the original (and background information) is accessible through American Memory by searching for the title.

Lesson 5 To 'Preserve, Protect and Defend'

What did Lincoln do to preserve the Union?

Lincoln believed that the preservation of the Union was his primary Constitutional duty. Not everyone agreed that preserving the Union was paramount. Choose a selection of documents from the following list to present to the class. Students should begin by describing the document. Students should determine the point of view any particular document (or the event it describes) expresses about preserving the Union. Then, the document should be posted to the timeline.


Events Before the Inauguration

  • The title page of the song sheet The Secession Quick Step (1860) (accessible through the EDSITEment resource American Memory)shows the sub-title: "The South, the whole South, and nothing but the South."

  • In this account of the opening session of the Confederate Congress, secession begins exactly one month before Lincoln is to be sworn in. See the Journals of the Confederate Congress, available from American Memory. Look at the block quoted sentence beginning, "An ordinance to dissolve..."




  • The song "The Lincoln Quick Step" (1860), accessible through American Memory by searching for the title, shows the confidence some had that Lincoln could preserve the Union:
    "HONEST OLD ABE" has split many a rail

    He is up to his work, and he'll surely not fail,
    He has guided his FLAT-BOAT thro' many a strait,
    And watchful he'll prove at the HELM of the State.
    Share the lyrics (page two) and the cover (page three) with the class.

  • On this Lincoln campaign poster: Lincoln For President! (1860) as a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory, students should note the word "Union." Even in his campaign, Lincoln clearly stood for preserving the Union.

  • An editorial from the Indianapolis Daily Journal (January 17, 1861) from the EDSITEment resource The Valley of Shadow shows the willingness in some quarters to risk war. Here is an excerpt:
    "We are therefore for the most determined measures of resistance to the rebellion in the Gulf States. We insist that the Union shall be preserved till those who made it shall consent to change it. No refractory State or combination of traitors must be permitted to peril it in the pursuit of insane vengeance or impracticable theories. And if their madness leads them to open war let them suffer the doom of traitors."


Events After the Inauguration


  • A song about Lincoln, "Our Country's Flag" (1861), features the lyrics: "The Union must and shall be saved." Look at the cover and lyrics accessible through the EDSITEment resource American Memory.

  • Early in the war, the senate requested information from Lincoln on the seizure of two Confederates from an English ship as recorded in the Journal of the United States Senate, Thursday, December 26, 1861 at the end of page 73, accessible through American Memory by searching for the title. We sometimes forget that Lincoln had to continue conducting foreign policy during the war.

  • The war did not always go well for the militarily superior North. Here, in an American Memory document, Lincoln fires General McClellan, the military leader of the Northern armies (November 5, 1862).

  • Later, Lincoln appointed Grant to lead the army. A digitized version of Ulysses S. Grant's commission as lieutenant general (March 10, 1864) and background information is accessible through American Memory by searching for the title.

  • A first draft of The Gettysburg Address (1863) is available in a digitized version from the Library of Congress. Additional materials relating to the Gettysburg Address are also available, including a transcript and a photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg.

  • Show your students the police blotter of Lincoln's assassination (1865) from the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom. Did Lincoln's death result from his desire to preserve the Union?

  • Show your students the wanted poster for Lincoln's assassins (1865) from American Memory.


Now that the class has looked at the issues of property, slavery and union, discuss Lincoln's inaugural address in relation to what actually happened. How well did the speech reflect what transpired?

Lincoln decided to re-supply Fort Sumter. What happened as a result? Was that unexpected?

Lincoln opposed slavery but said he would not end the practice. What did happen?

Lincoln believed preserving the Union was his most important responsibility. The Civil War was fought largely over that issue. Could the war have been avoided? Would the Union have been restored without it?

(NOTE: The Gettysburg Address is one place to look to see Lincoln's later reflections on the matter.)

Lesson 6 "The Most Solemn" Oath

Washington's copy of a working draft of the Constitution from the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital Classroom, you can see an early version of those responsibilities in Section X, with Washington's notes of changes proposed by Madison and Mason. (Note also, at the beginning of Section X, the draft proposal to refer to the President as "His Excellency.')

The class might be interested in comparing that early draft to the final draft of Article II (Sections 2-4), which spells out the responsibilities of the executive branch.
This lesson offers a means of assessing and extending the previous lessons. When Lincoln said in his inaugural address, "You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend it,'" he was referring to the oath of office that he had just taken. For this lesson, students will determine which presidential responsibility Lincoln was attempting to undertake with particular actions.

Background Information
There was a good deal of discussion among the Founding Fathers as to what the responsibilities of the President should be. In this image of

Here are the President's responsibilities as specified in the Constitution:

"The President shall be Commander-in-Chief" of the armed forces and can "require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments," make treaties (conduct foreign policy), nominate "certain officers" such as ambassadors and judges, and fill vacancies.

The President "may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."


The President is required to give a state of the Union address "from time to time" to Congress and "may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper." The President can receive ambassadors (conduct foreign policy), execute the law, and "commission all the officers of the United States" military.

The President is removed from office if impeached for, and convicted of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

The complete text of the Constitution is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School.


Present the class with a list of the President's responsibilities. Give background information on the Constitution as appropriate to your class.

Students should now be able to match actions President Lincoln took with specific responsibilities of his office. Depending on the documents you used, write headings such as these on the chalkboard, reminding the students they are among the President's responsibilities:

  • Dealing with Other Countries (Foreign Policy)

  • Commanding the Army

  • Requiring Opinions (from those who work for him)

  • Making Sure Laws are Obeyed

  • Commissioning Officers of the Military


Volunteers could take a document from the timeline and place it in an appropriate category of Presidential responsibility so that there are representative examples in each. If desired, as an alternative, every student (or pairs of students), given a chart with headings for the chosen responsibilities, could be asked to indicate Lincoln's matching presidential actions.

Extending the Lesson



Selected EDSITEment Websites

Kid-Friendly Sites Accessible Through EDSITEment



  • After completing the lessons in this unit, student groups can conduct activities on any President based on the Lincoln model above.

    When it is relevant to your course of study, students can be assigned a particular Presidency to research in a small group. Before a group begins its research, work with the students to select (or select for them) one to three relevant excerpts from the assigned President's inaugural address available online at the EDSITEment reviewed website, Presidential Speeches. Students should post the President's name and inaugural excerpts to an appropriate timeline.


    If there is sufficient access to technology, students can use the EDSITEment websites to identify historical events and download materials (similar to, but not limited to, the sorts displayed for Lincoln) that relate to the inaugural speech excerpt(s). Where there is insufficient access to technology, you may wish to download relevant materials for students' use.

    Students assigned to collect documents about a President will post the materials to a timeline. Students must be prepared to explain why a particular document is relevant to the inaugural address. Groups are also responsible for planning the sharing of an assigned inaugural excerpt and some of its related archival materials.

    In addition to using the search functions of the EDSITEment websites, students should look through the kid-friendly EDSITEment sites listed in the resource links section provided at the end of this unit.

    The lesson can culminate with a classroom display of every group's materials posted along an expanded timeline. Guests could be invited. Students should be prepared to make connections for the audience between the archival materials, the inaugural address and pertinent historical events. Students can enhance their presentations with additional information and display items or activities such as recitations of inaugural speech excerpts.

    After the students have explored a few inaugural ceremonies and the events that preceded and followed them, they can make some comparisons. Discuss the following: Which Presidents were inaugurated under similar circumstances? completely different circumstances? had the most success in fulfilling the promise of their inaugural address? the least? faced the most difficult situation? the least?


  • For classes interested in learning more about presidential inaugurations, consult the EDSITEment lesson I Do Solemnly Swear: Presidential Inaugurations.

  • In an inaugural year, track news related to the current election campaign and inaugural. What contemporary events resonate with events from the past? The American President, an EDSITEment-reviewed site, has a feature called Election 2000 designed to help teachers and students follow the 2000 presidential election.


  • Abandon the forts and let the South have them?

  • Reclaim the forts taken by Southern states?

  • Hold only those forts still in federal hands?

  • Or choose some other course of action?


Select a few representative documents from the list below. Students should begin by describing the document. Then they should reflect on which option any particular document reflects.

Background Information for the Teacher
Extensive information for the teacher on Fort Sumter is available from the EDSITEment resource Crisis at Fort Sumter. Following is a summary from the site relating to Lincoln's inaugural address:

Lincoln pondered the momentous questions posed by secession and the situation of the Southern forts for his inaugural statement. He never doubted that peaceable disunion was wrong and that the Union was permanent.


But disclaiming the right of secession did not necessarily dictate a particular policy regarding federal property. Different policies might be defended as most likely to uphold and restore the Union. He had to weigh the consequences of any decision on the upper South, the Confederacy, northern public opinion, and his own political supporters. He had to consider, too, the nature of his responsibility as the chief executive, sworn to uphold the Constitution and the law.

As he formulated his initial policy towards Forts Sumter and Pickens for his inaugural address, Lincoln received advice suggesting three different courses of action. Some counseled that he abandon Sumter and Pickens along with the other property now under Confederate control. Others urged him not only to continue holding Sumter and Pickens, but also to retake forts seized by the South. Still others recommended that he hold Sumter and Pickens, but leave for the time being the forts already in Confederate hands.

(Source: Crisis at Fort Sumter website,


Before the Inauguration
Fort Sumter (Government Property)


  • Journal of the United States Senate from Wednesday, January 9, 1861, Volume 52, p.83. Find the document by using its title to conduct a search in American Memory.


Read the first complete sentence on the page, from a letter by President Buchanan, about Fort Sumter and its commander Major Anderson: "I was assured by distinguished and upright gentlemen of South Carolina that no attack upon Major Anderson was intended, but that, on the contrary, it was the desire of the State authorities, as much as it was my own, to avoid the fatal consequences which must eventually follow a military collision."

After the Inauguration
These two letters from cabinet members (accessible through Crisis at Fort Sumter), show the conflicting advice Lincoln was receiving. They are both brief.


Lincoln decided on April 4 to re-supply the fort on April 15. Read more about his decision by searching American Memory for "Draft of Abraham Lincoln's instructions to Maj. Robert Anderson." Anderson was commander of Fort Sumter at the time.

Songs, played in parlors from widely circulated music sheets, were a way of arousing sentiment. "Fort Sumter. A Southern Song" (c.1861) tells the story of the opening battle of the Civil War from the Southern point of view. (A digitized version of the original and a transcript are accessible through American Memory by searching for the song's title.) Southern defiance regarding Fort Sumter is expressed in the song's last verse:

Then Anderson surrendered,
And marched his men away:
And sailed with them to New York,
Where they had better stay.
"Reply to the Bonnie Blue Flag" takes a Northern perspective. A digitized version of the original is accessible through American Memory by searching for the song's title and then going to page 2 of the document. The song is presented side by side with a Southern song to which it is a response. One version says: "Hurrah, hurrah for Southern rights." The other says: "Hurrah, hurrah for Freeman's rights."


Internet Public Library at Abraham Lincoln's Beard: The Idea Of An 11 Year Old Girl!


In this unit, students will look at photos and copies of actual documents from the years before and during Lincoln's Presidency. What events/issues do they think might be in the documents? Make a list.

This study of Lincoln will center around his inauguration. If desired, share a photo of the inaugural scene. What do the students notice?

Discuss with the class the "rest of the story" of Lincoln's inauguration, using the following information from the EDSITEment resource Presidential Speeches:

The national upheaval of secession was a grim reality at Abraham Lincoln's inauguration. Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy two weeks earlier. Lincoln had arrived in Washington by a secret route to avoid danger, and his movements were guarded by General Winfield Scott's soldiers. Ignoring advice to the contrary, the President-elect rode with President Buchanan in an open carriage to the Capitol, where he took the oath of office on the East Portico. Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the executive oath for the seventh time. The Capitol itself was sheathed in scaffolding because the copper and wood "Bulfinch" dome was being replaced with a cast iron dome designed by Thomas U. Walter.


Download and print the archival documents you select and duplicate copies as necessary for viewing by students.

The Digital Classroom offers a series of worksheets for analyzing primary source documents, including written documents and photographs, that you may wish to use or adapt to help students in reviewing the materials presented in this unit.

Following is a brief summary of the historical context of Lincoln's inauguration:

Abraham Lincoln became President of the United States during one of the most tumultuous times in our nation's history. At the time, the United States consisted of 19 free states, in which slavery was prohibited, and 15 slave states, in which it was allowed. The question of whether to allow or abolish slavery divided the country prior to Lincoln's election, and Lincoln had called the nation "a house divided." Lincoln opposed the expansion of slavery, but said he did not intend to interfere with slavery if elected President. Nevertheless, many Southern leaders threatened to withdraw their states from the Union if Lincoln were to win the election. In the time between his election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, seven southern states seceded from the Union; four other states soon followed. These states formed the Confederate States of America.
The lessons in this unit focus on the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Similar materials relevant to any Presidency can be located online using the resource links provided at the end of this unit.


  • State the Constitutional requirements for inaugurations and the oath of office.
  • Identify important historical events related to Lincoln's first inaugural address.
  • Interpret selected archival materials in the light of the inaugural address and presidential responsibilities.


Guiding Question:

How did Lincoln's first inaugural address reflect the events that preceded it? How well did it presage events to follow? How did subsequent actions by Lincoln reflect the responsibilities enumerated in the Presidential Oath of Office?

Tips for Using These Lessons:

  • Lesson 1: "Let Your Whiskers Grow" Lincoln Photographs can be used in tandem with I've Just Seen a Face, a unit on portraiture available on EDSITEment, to discuss the important role that image plays in our society, and particularly in politics. How have technologies developed throughout the 20th century placed further emphasis on appearance and perspective?

  • Lesson 2: We Must Not Be Enemies can be paired with the EDSITEment lesson plan I Do Solemnly Swear to teach a class unit on presidential inaugurations. Encourage students to explore the historical context in which selected inaugural addresses were delivered and the impact of the addresses on the circumstances that influenced them.

  • Lesson 3: To Hold, Occupy and Possess the Property can be used to launch a debate about property rights. When a piece of property is claimed by two different parties that both feel they have legitimate ownership, how can this conflict be resolved?

  • Lesson 4: The Institution of Slavery and Declare the Causes, another EDSITEment lesson plan, can form the basis of a class unit on freedom and how groups of people have declared and fought for their freedom throughout history. Students can draw comparisons between the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation and their effects, both short-term and long-term, philosophical and practical, on the people whose freedom these documents proclaimed.

  • Lesson 5: To 'Preserve, Protect and Defend' and the EDSITEment lesson Before Brother Fought Brother can be used together to spark a dialogue about what drives groups and individuals to go to war. Attempt to establish the primary motivating factors for a variety of different people - from leaders to soldiers to civilians - to fight (or support the fight) in various wars throughout history.

  • Use Lesson 6: "The Most Solemn" Oath to launch an in-class debate on the responsibilities of the president, according to the Constitution and in the minds of citizens. Discuss which, if any, of the executive duties put forth in the Constitution are left open to interpretation, and what role such ambiguities and resulting differences in point of view have played in historical events. Has the job of president changed at all in response to people's abstract expectations of the position?