For years, University of Alabama Associate Professor Lawrence F. Kohl (author of the brilliant and historiographically important The Politics of Individualism) taught a popular class on the life of Abraham Lincoln as an intense, three week, upper level undergrad course every May. When he retired, one of his former students, Rachel K. Deale, took it over for one summer before becoming an Assistant Professor at Barton College. When she left, I was determined to keep the unique class going.
Turns out it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my 20+ years of college teaching. It rejuvenated me.
I’ve always loved my job and wake up every morning excited to get to do it (yes, I know I’m lucky). But this course was special. Like Dr. Deale, I chose to teach it as a full month course in June, meeting for one hour and 45 minutes every day of the week. That made for a busy month, but an extremely fun one hanging out with Abe and the students (mostly history majors).
The prep work for any course you’ve not taught before can be intense, but especially when it meets every day of the week. I wrote lectures and built image-heavy Powerpoints the night before delivering them, all while keeping up with the reading schedule assigned to my students and quizzing them on it.
I’m confident I taught the students many things about our 16th president and his era that they didn’t know and that will stay with them. Sticking mostly to Kohl’s tried-and-true course outline helped me craft lectures that I feel worked well and kept students engaged in classroom discussions, shedding light on Antebellum and Civil War America, as well as the ways Lincoln’s life prepared him for the role of our leader during America’s most divisive time.
I did alter and add to Kohl’s basic structure, including the role that public history sites, monuments, and movies have played in shaping how Americans have remembered and mythologized Lincoln. We also read about and discussed the differing ways Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon and his White House secretaries (Nicolay and Hay) shaped the memory and historiography of Lincoln.
We also had “Lincoln in the News” assignments (a variation on an assignment I have in my survey courses), requiring students to find and analyze current news stories demonstrating how Abe’s legacy and myth are often used by modern politicians and pundits for both liberal and conservative agendas. We considered how and why the Lincoln myth causes politicians of all stripes to tie their ideologies to his. This allowed for a bit of memory history, but also a discussion of the dangers of “cherry picking” primary source evidence by both historians and others looking for a usable past. (Ironically, Lincoln himself did this when tying his views against the expansion of slavery to the views of the Founders).
In short, although using a narrative approach to the course (each day I essentially told stories about his life), my students and I accomplished more than just learning basic facts about Lincoln. Besides history, we dealt with public history, memory, historiography, and how historians use and misuse primary sources —all within a narrative framework. Abe himself would have appreciated the use of personal stories as a means of painlessly pulling my audience into considering more complex themes and concepts.
Thus one of the things the class taught me was the usefulness of a biography course. The students stayed engaged as we followed his narrative. Tracing the personal developments in his life, I asked students to consider how those things shaped his career, political beliefs, and perceptions of the events of his time.
We all love the juicy and personal details of famous lives, but perhaps this is even more true for a generation that’s grown up watching reality TV. It seems my students’ fascination with Lincoln’s personal life helped keep them engaged as we drifted into those discussions of memory, public history, and historiography, and as they read and analyzed his own writings.
Of course these are the same reasons that biographical books are so effective as a lens for examining a particular historical era, but my experience teaching the Lincoln course convinces me that history departments should consider offering an array of biography courses. It might just be one way we can start attracting more students to upper level history classes, and thus to win back the number of history majors the field has lost lately.
If you’re a professor or teacher, I encourage you to think about historical figures you’d love to teach a course on and then do it! I believe students might more eagerly sign up for a course on Joan of Arc than they would the 100 Years War, or one on Ronald Reagan more readily than a class on Post-WWII America. How about Elizabeth I instead of Tudor England? Frederick Douglass instead of Antebellum Slavery?
But Lincoln showed me much more than just the advantages of teaching history through biography.
When planning, I intended to focus on Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery. For this reason I chose Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery as my main text. On our first day I made clear that students should pay attention to Lincoln’s evolution in regards to slavery and race. By the end of the course, however, following this theme brought me to a realization I had not anticipated.
As we know, judged by the standards of our time Lincoln was racist. But historians often stress that from the perspective of his time he held fairly progressive ideas about African Americans and slavery, and those sentiments evolved over the course of his life, especially during the war. A man once holding views about racial inferiority that were fairly consistent with that of other whites of his time eventually became the first president to openly call for suffrage rights for at least some categories of African Americans (and it cost him his life) and perhaps would have eventually pushed for more than just that.
As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument, Lincoln’s evolution was slow in the eyes of abolitionists and radical Republicans, but perhaps it was exactly the pace needed so that public opinion would grow to support emancipation and the 13th amendment. The war’s contingencies, and Lincoln’s responses to them, set and controlled that pace.
Using Foner and selected writings and speeches by Lincoln, I guided students thru Lincoln’s change and pace, showing how and why they happened. When discussing “cherry picking,” we noted how easily it is for people today with varying agendas to find Lincoln’s own words at different times in his life that they can use to “prove” differing points.
Of course this is true with other historical figures, because people’s thoughts and opinions often change over time. That’s the nature of maturing and viewing the world through a larger lens of knowledge and experiences. This is just one reason that context is so important when using primary sources.
The first Lincoln writing we read was his 1832 announcement that he was running for state office. In it, Abe clearly delineates his Whig party political sentiments, but concludes by promising that if he were to one day “discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”
A statement of open-mindedness like that is laudatory, and while over Lincoln’s life he clung to most of his core principles, he certainly proved willing to change his mind and evolve, not just in regards to his ideas about slavery and race, but also military strategy. I told my students I feel this was Lincoln’s true greatness; in an age when political partisanship ripped our nation apart, his willingness to change his views based on events, contingencies, and experiences is what saved the Union.
And yet, what struck me by the end of the course was that we often don’t allow our politicians to grow and evolve like that. How frequently do we criticize them for holding a position or beliefs years ago that seem at odds with their current ones or that are now contemptible? In an attempt at a “gotcha” moment, we criticize them for hypocrisy, or allege they only changed their mind out of political expediency. (Lincoln himself faced such criticisms).
Sadly, it seems to me, this plays at least some role in the partisanship preventing the compromise between parties that democracy requires. Why would a politician be swayed by debate or new realities if changing their mind or compromising their positions leads to ridicule and charges of hypocrisy by pundits and political rivals?
As a result, they don’t change their minds or obfuscate in an attempt to hide it when they do. They refuse to admit when they were wrong or refuse to compromise, and we get gridlock. Wouldn’t it be wiser to support politicians willing to renounce their opinions if they discover them to be erroneous, or allow them to evolve with the changing times? If we praise them for doing so, wouldn’t it actually encourage more open mindedness?
Yet in our current political environment it seems we only want politicians that unwaveringly stand firm to convictions, or that come out of the womb with fully formed values and beliefs that match with our current values and standards.
Imagine if Lincoln had never changed his mind about slavery and race. He would have never used emancipation and black troops as a means of winning the war and would have continued to promote the colonization of African Americans outside the country. Had he not shifted on these positions, debatably he would have lost the war. Certainly he would have never promoted any form of black citizenship and would have been happy to see slavery die out over the course of a century or longer.
Thus had he been uncompromising and ideologically consistent to the last, I wonder how we would remember Abraham Lincoln today. He certainly would not be the “Great Emancipator,” and likely would have overseen the destruction of the Union rather than been its savior.
On the last part of our final exam I had students write a “self-reflective” essay in which they considered whether there was anything in Lincoln’s life they found “usable” in their own. The result was interesting, as students remarked on things as varied as Lincoln’s rags-to-riches background, his grief and depression, his leadership qualities, and the value of using simple and relatable language when addressing complex ideas and concepts. Happily, none agreed with labeling Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” but most clearly demonstrated they understood the essential and crucial role he played in the complicated process and pace of emancipation.
And thus I consider the class to have been a great success, and I hope I’ll I continue to be able to teach it. I learned some valuable things right along with my students, growing and improving as an educator and in my open-mindedness.
Thanks for the lesson, Mr. President.