Abraham Lincoln and Executive Power

We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution
Supplemental Lesson

About This Supplemental Lesson

In honor of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, the Center for Civic Education, with support from the Motorola Foundation, has produced this lesson for high school students titled "What Was Abraham Lincoln's Legacy to American Constitutionalism and Citizenship?" The lesson, written by John J. Patrick, Professor Emeritus of Education at Indiana University, supplements the We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution text. It is designed to be taught after students have completed Lessons 1–7 (Unit One) and 17 (Unit Three) of the We the People text, but is appropriate for high school students not familiar the We the People curriculum.

The competitive hearings of the 2009 We the People National Finals will include a question on Abraham Lincoln and his legacy. Furthermore, starting with the 2009-10 school year, students from every state will study this lesson to prepare for each state’s We the People finals. Students will need to answer a question related to material discussed in the lesson during each state’s finals.

Purpose of the Lesson

The lesson traces the rise of Lincoln from his humble beginnings to the presidency. It also examines Lincoln’s ideas and decisions regarding slavery and the use of presidential power to preserve the Federal Union during the Civil War.

When students have completed this lesson, they should be able to
  • explain how Abraham Lincoln overcame daunting disadvantages to become a great president,
  • analyze and evaluate President Lincoln’s decisions in response to critical constitutional issues of the Civil War, and
  • understand and appreciate Lincoln’s enduring legacy to American constitutionalism and citizenship.

The author of this supplemental lesson on Abraham Lincoln is John J. Patrick, Professor Emeritus of Education at Indiana University.


This supplemental lesson commemorating the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth was made possible by a Motorola Lincoln Grant from the Motorola Foundation.  


© Center for Civic Education. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to freely reproduce and use the pdf version of this lesson for nonprofit, educational purposes. Copyright must be acknowledged on all copies. Images used in this lesson and on this website are subject to copyright restrictions and must not be reproduced without prior written permission from the  copyright holder. Please visit the Center for Civic Education’s website at www.civiced.org.

Reviewing and Using the Lesson

Note: Answers typed into the boxes below each question will not be saved. To save your answers, either copy and paste them into a separate word processing program or print the page.
Question 1

What key events led to Abraham Lincoln’s rise from humble origins and relative obscurity to national prominence and the summit of political power in the United States of America?

Question 2

Did President Lincoln usurp the constitutional authority of Congress in his exercise of executive power to defend the Union after the start of military conflict between the Union and the Confederate States?
  • Evaluate Lincoln’s comments in his July 4, 1861, “Message to Congress,” about the use of executive powers in a time of national crisis.
  • Evaluate the response of Congress to the president’s message.

Question 3

Did President Lincoln’s suspensions of the writ of habeas corpus violate the Constitution?

Question 4

Do you agree with Lincoln's position about the extension of slavery to the federal government’s western territories and his opposition to the popular sovereignty provision of the Kansas-Nebraska Act?

Question 5

What was President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Why did he issue it?

Question 6

What were the immediate and long-term effects of the Emancipation Proclamation?

Question 7

Do you agree with President Lincoln’s claims that his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was a constitutional exercise of his executive power?

Question 8

Why did Lincoln think that an executive order to abolish slavery throughout the United States would have been unconstitutional? Do you agree with his position?

Question 9

How did Lincoln connect his political ideas and actions to principles of the 1776 Declaration of Independence?

Question 10

What is the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to constitutionalism and citizenship in America today?



February 12 
Abraham Lincoln born at Sinking Spring Farm, near Hogdenville in Hardin County, Kentucky.
Serves in the Black Hawk War
August 6
Defeated in an election for the Illinois State Legislature
May 7
Appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois
Starts his study of law
August 4
Elected to the Illinois state legislature
August 1
Reelected to his second term in the Illinois state legislature
August 6
Reelected to his third term in the Illinois state legislature
August 3
Reelected to his fourth and final term in the Illinois state legislature
November 4
Marries Mary Todd
August 1
First son Robert Todd Lincoln is born
James K. Polk elected eleventh president of the United States
March 10
Second son Edward (Eddie) Baker Lincoln is born
August 3
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the Seventh Congressional District of Illinois
Zachary Taylor elected twelfth president of the United States
February 21
Second son Eddie dies
Millard Fillmore becomes thirteenth president of the United States after Taylor's death on July 9
December 21
Third son William (Willie) Wallace Lincoln is born
Franklin Pierce elected fourteenth president of the United States
April 4
Fourth son Thomas (Tad) Lincoln is born
May 30
Kansas-Nebraska Act becomes law
November 7
Elected to Illinois state legislature, but declines seat in order to run for U.S. Senate
James Buchanan elected fifteenth president of the United States
August 21-October 15
Seven Lincoln-Douglas debates are held in Illinois
November 2
Lincoln loses to Douglas in election for U.S. Senate
October 16
John Brown attacks Harpers Ferry
February 27
Delivers Cooper Union address
May 18
Wins Republican presidential nomination
November 6
Elected sixteenth president of the United States
December 20
South Carolina secedes from the Union
January 9
Mississippi secedes from the Union
January 10
Florida secedes from the Union
January 11
Alabama secedes from the Union
January 26
Louisiana secedes from the Union
February 1
Texas secedes from the Union
March 4
Inaugurated as president; delivers First Inaugural Address
April 12
Fort Sumter attacked by Confederates
April 17 
Virginia secedes from the Union
April 19
Orders blockade of the Confederacy
April 27
Suspends habeas corpus along the route between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia
May 6
Arkansas secedes from the Union
May 7
Tennessee secedes from the Union
May 20
North Carolina secedes from the Union
May 25
John Merryman arrested in Cockeysville, Maryland
May 28
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivers decision in Ex parte Merryman
July 4
Delivers "Message to Congress" speech
July 21
Confederates defeat Union forces at First Battle of Bull Run
August 6
First Confiscation Act becomes law
November 1
Promotes General George McClellan to general-in-chief of army
February 20
Son Willie dies
March 11
Removes McClellan from command of the army
April 6-7
Union defeats Confederate forces at Battle of Shiloh
April 16
Emancipates slaves in District of Columbia
April 25
Union forces capture New Orleans
May 31-June 1
Union forces fend off Confederate attack at Battle of Seven Pines
June 25-July 1
Confederates force Union retreat in Seven Days' Battle
July 17
Second Confiscation Act, Militia Act become law
July 22
Reads Emancipation Proclamation to cabinet
July 23
Promotes Henry W. Halleck to general-in-chief of the army
August 28-30
Confederates defeat Union forces at Second Battle of Bull Run
September 17
Union forces defeat Confederates at Antietam
September 22
Announces Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
September 24
Issues proclamation suspending writ of habeas corpus "throughout the United States"
December 13
Confederates defeat Union forces at Battle of Fredericksburg
January 1
Issues Emancipation Proclamation
May 1-4
Confederates defeat Union forces at Battle of Chancellorsville
May 19
Orders banishment of Clement Vallandigham to Confederacy
July 1-3
Union forces defeat Confederates at Battle of Gettysburg
July 4
Union forces Confederate surrender at Vicksburg
July 13-17
Draft riots in New York City
September 19-20
Confederates defeat Union forces at Battle of Chickamauga
November 19
Delivers Gettysburg Address
December 8
Announces Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction Message to Congress
March 9-10
Promotes Ulysses S. Grant to lieutenant general and appoints him general-in-chief
May 5-21
Union and Confederate forces take heavy casualties during inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness and Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
June 7-8
Renominated for presidency at Baltimore Convention
July 4
Defends his reconstruction policy by refusing to sign the Wade-Davis Bill
August 5
Union forces defeat Confederates in the Battle of Mobile Bay
September 2
City of Atlanta surrenders to Union forces
November 8
Wins reelection to presidency
November 15-16
Union forces defeat Confederates in Battle of Nashville
January 31
Congress passes Thirteenth Amendment
February 3
Attends unsuccessful Hampton Roads Peace Conference
March 4
Inaugurated as president; delivers Second Inaugural Address
April 2
Confederates evacuate Richmond, capital of the Confederacy
April 9
Robert E. Lee surrenders at Appomattox Court House, Virginia
April 11
Delivers last public speech, in Washington, D.C.
April 14
Shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.; Lewis Powell attacks Secretary of State William H. Seward
April 15
Lincoln dies of injuries at 7:22 a.m.
April 26
Booth dies after having been shot and captured at a farm in Virginia
May 4
Lincoln is buried in Springfield, Illinois
July 7
Assassination co-conspirators George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt hanged
December 6
Thirteenth Amendment ratified



John Patrick Interview
In this brief interview, John J. Patrick, Professor Emeritus of Education at Indiana University, discusses the Abraham Lincoln Supplement, a short lesson sponsored by the Motorola Foundation that supplements the We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, a civics text for high school students. "What Was Abraham Lincoln's Legacy to American Constitutionalism and Citizenship?" traces the rise of Lincoln from his humble beginnings to the presidency and examines Lincoln's ideas and decisions regarding slavery and the use of presidential power to preserve the Federal Union during the Civil War.
Video  [1 minutes]

Audio Recording of the Abraham Lincoln Supplement
Are you an auditory learner? Do you remember information more easily if you hear it instead of reading it? If so, or if you just want to reinforce your reading, check out this audio recording of the entire Abraham Lincoln supplemental lesson, "What Was Abraham Lincoln's Legacy to American Constitutionalism and Citizenship?" Listen or download the MP3.

Download Audio  [28 minutes]

Education for Democracy Podcast: John Patrick Discusses Lincoln Lesson
In this podcast, John J. Patrick, Professor Emeritus of Education at Indiana University, describes Lincoln's legacy as president during a troubled time in our nation's history. Professor Patrick elaborates on the themes presented in his Lincoln supplemental lesson. He discusses habeas corpus during the Lincoln era, presidential powers, slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln's thoughts about the Declaration of Independence, among other topics.

Read the full transcript of Professor Patrick's remarks




How to Use this Section

Go beyond the text of the Lincoln supplement by viewing any of the categories below to enrich your learning about Abraham Lincoln and the constitutional issues surrounding his presidency. These sections contain the full texts of primary sources, court cases, biographies of key individuals, links to other helpful websites, a list of scholarly works on Lincoln, and a handy collection of Lincoln quotations. 

Primary Sources

Read full-text versions of the primary sources mentioned in the Abraham Lincoln supplementary lesson and in this website. Includes several of Lincoln's speeches and letters, his first and second inaugural addresses, the Emancipation Proclamation, and much more.

Court Cases

The following is a list of links to court cases mentioned in the Abraham Lincoln supplement and on this website. Links to these websites are provided for informational purposes only. The Center for Civic Education is in no way responsible for the content of these sites and their presence on this page should not be construed as an endorsement.

Ex parte Merryman, April 1861
John Merryman was arrested on May 25, 1861, for his association with the rebellion and for treason. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's opinion in this Maryland Circuit Court case was a rebuke of President Lincoln for unconstitutionally suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Lincoln responded to Taney in his July 4, 1861, Message to Congress in Special Session.

Prize Cases, March 10, 1863
The Prize Cases dealt with the seizure of ships sailing to Confederate ports. The issue at stake was whether Lincoln had exceeded the powers of the presidency by ordering the seizures.

Ex parte Milligan, April 3, 1866
Ex parte Milligan dealt with the trial and conviction of a civilian, Lambdin Milligan, in a military court.

The Dred Scott Case

In March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared that all blacks - slaves as well as free - were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permiting slavery in all of the country's territories.
The case before the court was that of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott, a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri, had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom. Taney wrote in the Court's majority opinion that, because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue.
The Dred Scott case was a primary focus of the celebrated series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. 


Read more about the people described in the Abraham Lincoln supplementary lesson and in this website. Contains short biographies of Lincoln's parents, his wife, Stephen A. Douglas, and others. 

Stephen Arnold Douglas (1813–1861)
Abraham Lincoln’s political archrival.

Horace Greeley (1811–1872)
Editor of the New York Tribune during the Lincoln administration.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–1882)
Lincoln's troubled wife, daughter of a prominent Lexington, Kentucky, family.

Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln (1788–1869)
Lincoln's supportive stepmother, wife of Thomas Lincoln.

Thomas Lincoln (1776 or 1778–1851) and Nancy Hanks (1784–1818)
Lincoln's parents. Nancy died when Lincoln was still a boy. Lincoln's relationship with his father, Thomas, gradually deteriorated.

James Polk (1795–1849)
Eleventh president of the United States. Lincoln was opposed to the Mexican-American War, which Polk supported.

Edwin McMasters Stanton (1814–1869)
Lincoln's Secretary of War.

Roger B. Taney (1777–1864)
Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court during Lincoln's presidency.


These links to reputable sources can be used to provide context to your study of Abraham Lincoln and the Constitution. Links to these websites are provided for informational purposes only. The Center for Civic Education is in no way responsible for the content of these sites and their presence on this page should not be construed as an endorsement.

Further Reading

The following texts were selected by John Patrick, Professor Emeritus of Education at Indiana University, the author of this Lincoln supplemental lesson. Use these resources to deepen your understanding of Abraham Lincoln and the constitutional issues surrounding his presidency.

Belz, Herman. Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham
University Press, 1998).

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

Farber, Daniel. Lincoln’s Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Guelzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999).

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).

Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

McPherson, James M. Lincoln: A Presidential Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin Press, 2008).

Miller, William Lee. Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. (New York: Knopf, 2002).

Neely, Mark E., Jr. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).


Abraham Lincoln was described by historian Ronald C. White Jr. as "the eloquent president." Read what Lincoln had to say about the important issues that faced his presidency. 

African American Soldiers

“It is the duty of every Government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war, as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person, on account of his color and for no offense against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism, and a crime against the civilization of the age.” —General Order, July 30, 1863 (Lubin 2005, p. 484)

Executive Authority

“I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress.” —Lincoln to Zachariah Chandler, U.S. senator from Michigan, July 4, 1864 (Herbert 1995, p. 511)


“What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, every where. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage, and you are preparing your own limbs to wear them. Accustomed to trample on the rights of those around you, you have lost the genius of your own independence, and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises.” —Speech in Edwardsville, Illinois, September 11, 1858 (Fehrenbacher 1989, p. 585)

“The world never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now; are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.” —From an address at a sanitary fair in Baltimore, April 18, 1864 (Lubin 2005, p. 468)


“When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government,--that is despotism. If the negro is a man, then my ancient faith teaches me that 'all men are created equal,' and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another.” —From a speech given in Peoria, Illinois, in reply to Senator Stephen Douglas, October 16, 1854 (Lubin 2005, p. 35)

“Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with the slaves, or with them about the slaves? If they do, I wish to answer you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the time of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That, I suppose, is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.” —From a letter to Alexander Stephens of Georgia, December 22, 1860

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that....I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.” —From a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, August 22, 1862 (Moores 1914, 173)

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say that we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not, cannot fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”—Second Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862 (Lubin 2005, p. 388)


Donald, David Herbert. 1995. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. 1989. Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858. New York: Literary Classics of the United States.

Lubin, Martin, ed. 2005. The Words of Abraham Lincoln: Speeches, Proclamations, and Papers of Our Most Eloquent President. New York: Tess Press.

Moores, Charles W., ed. 1914. Lincoln: Addresses and Letters. New York: American Book Company.


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