Week 2: Understanding Lincoln as Honest Abe

Participants examine Lincoln's less-than-candid moments and debate his legacy as Commander-in-Chief

  1. (June 17-18, 2014) From both Carlisle and Washington DC, the "Understanding Lincoln" course offered insights on some of Abraham Lincoln's toughest struggles.  Although known both in his own lifetime and since as "Honest Abe," the participants engaged in a series of close readings of documents that at least raise the possibility that Lincoln's legendary honesty was more conditional than it might first appear.  The participants looked at five featured documents:
  2. They also read four thoughtful articles that attempted to put various elements of these documents into context.  There was a short excerpt on the political benefits of the "Honest Abe" nickname from Michael Burlingame; a sophisticated essay on the Second Great Awakening and its impact on Lincoln from Richard Carwardine; a quick survey of Lincoln's behind-the-scenes partisan activities in the 1850s from Matthew Pinsker; and finally, a revealing look at Lincoln's role in a series slander cases from legal historian Mark Steiner.
  3. Pinsker pushed hard behind the claim that Lincoln's partisan letters, especially the October 20, 1858 letter to Judd (known as the "Bare Suggestion" letter) deserve to be much more widely taught in American classrooms.  He argued that private political letters offer more valuable insights about nineteenth-century politics than public speeches.  But he failed to move the participants who rated Lincoln's Cooper Union speech as the "most teachable" in this set of documents.  No doubt it's difficult in this era of high-stakes testing and more intrusive state social studies standards to find the space in a typical K-12 classroom to teach lesser known documents --such as the Handbill on Infidelity, Letter to Yates or Letter to Judd-- but they can provide gems of insight in very small packages.  For example, several participants readily saw ways to incorporate Lincoln's 1846 handbill, which responded to charges that he wasn't a true Christian, into a wide-ranging class discussion on the uses of religion in American politics over time --from the Founders through the Second Great Awakening and Lincoln's era, straight through to the controversies surrounding JFK in 1960 or to the modern-day debates over evolution or gay marriage.


  4. The second session of the week featured a special panel on presidential war powers hosted by the New America Foundation in Washington DC.  The entire event (1 hour, 40 minutes) can be viewed on the Livestream channel.