Ken Burns Classroom

Lincoln and Reconstruction

Ken Burns Film: The Civil War

Collections: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)

Subject: American History US History

Grade Level: 8-12

Run Time: 4 class periods

The Role of President Lincoln in Reconstruction 1863-65: A Simulation Activity


This lesson provides an excellent bridge into the study of the Reconstruction era. Students will examine the roles of the president that have evolved through history and the powers of the president as prescribed in Article II of the U.S. Constitution. They will then role-play members of Lincoln’s cabinet and witnesses hold hearings on Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans.


  • Understand the roles and responsibilities of the president, especially during wartime, and their relationship to the Constitution’s Article II.
  • Analyze President Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans for after the Civil War and the tension that existed at the time.
  • Analyze the complex issues facing the United States during Reconstruction.
  • Compare and contrast issues surrounding President Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans.


National Standards for History, National Center for History in the Schools

Era 5 The course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people.
Standard 3A: The student understands the political controversy over Reconstruction

Grades 7-12:

  • Contrast the Reconstruction policies advocated by Lincoln.

Standard 3B: The student understands the Reconstruction programs to transform social relations in the South.

Grades 7-12

  • Explain the economic and social problems facing the South and appraise their impact on different social groups.
  • Analyze how African Americans attempted to improve their economic position during Reconstruction and explain the factors involved in their quest for land ownership.

Common Core State Standards

Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science & Technical Subjects

  • RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
  • RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
  • RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • RH.11-12.3 Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.


  • W.7-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.


Opening Activity: Presidential Roles and Responsibilities

  1. Start by asking students what they think a day in the life of the president is like today. Place them in “think-pair-share” groups and ask the following questions:
    • What kinds of activities or meetings might the president schedule or attend?
    • What kinds of issues would cross his or her desk?
    • What room would there be for a personal life?
    • What kind of decisions would need to be made?
  2. Tell students that the roles of the President have evolved since the time of George Washington. Distribute the handout “Roles and Responsibilities of the President” and review both Parts 1 and 2. Ask students if they knew that the president had all these roles. What are the president’s major responsibilities, as designated in the U.S. Constitution? Ask what, if any, extraordinary powers might the president have in war time? Write these powers on the front board.
  3. Now tell students that they are going to look at a variety of documents written by Abraham Lincoln, or sent to him, during the Civil War to see how many roles he played and the responsibilities he had.
  4. Divide the class into small groups such that each group looks at a minimum of two of the documents. These can be downloaded and printed (one copy each), or students can work directly on their computers. Note: For most written documents in the Abraham Lincoln Papers of American Memory there is an option to click “transcription” for a typed version of the handwritten original.
  5. Direct students’ attention to the second page of the Roles and Responsibilities handout and assign or have students select the documents they will review. Tell students to examine their document and answer the questions at the top of page three of the handout on an index card.
  6. Have each group report their findings following the discussion questions on page 3.
  7. If time allows, have students create a time line on a bulletin board. Ask each group to post their index cards on the time line in chronological order of the document, as best they can determine. Ask one member of each to come up and briefly summarize the nature of the documents they are posting.

Activity 2: Lincoln’s Plans for Reconstruction

Introduce this activity telling students that as they learned in activity 1, Lincoln had many responsibilities to fulfil simultaneously as president. One that is often overlooked is that while the war was being prosecuted on the battlefield, Lincoln had to think ahead to reconstruct the nation after the war. Tell students that in this activity, they will examine Lincoln’s initial plan elaborated in the document the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, dated December 8, 1863. You can have students access the document at American Memory ( or distribute copies to students.

  1. Form the class into small groups of 2-3 students. Distribute the handout “Lincoln’s Plans for Reconstruction” to each student and review the directions.
  2. Provide time for students to examine the document and answer the questions. (This can also be completed as a homework assignment.)
  3. Review with the class their likes and dislikes about President Lincoln’s Reconstruction Plans.

Activity 3: Lincoln holds cabinet meetings through 1864 and 1865 on the subject of Reconstruction

After President Lincoln developed his plan for Reconstruction, he presented it to his Cabinet for discussion. In this activity, some students will role play members of Lincoln’s cabinet and hold hearings on the Proclamation of Amnesty. The rest of the class will portray people who have written to Lincoln on this issue and will testify before the committee, based on information from their letters. At the conclusion of the hearings, cabinet members will present their recommendations and the entire class will vote on them. Surrounding the cabinet hearings will be “real-time” updates on events that occurred while the plans for reconstruction were being considered.

Preparing for the Cabinet Meeting

  1. Organize the class in the following manner: 5 students to play members of Lincoln’s cabinet. 7 small groups of students to be witnesses testifying at the hearings.
  2. Distribute the handout “Cabinet Meetings on the Subject of Reconstruction” for Cabinet members and Witnesses to those groups. Review the specific instructions for cabinet members and witnesses.
  3. Provide time for students to prepare for the meetings. (This can be completed as homework.)

    Conducting the Cabinet Meeting

    Set the stage for students. It’s April, 1864. The president has proposed plans for reconstructing the government after the war, but this presumes a Union victory. The war has raged on for over 3 years and still the South has not conceded. The presidential election is in November, 1864, and its possible Lincoln will be defeated. Tell students that before, during, and after the Cabinet hearings they will be given updates on the war’s progress and Lincoln’s chances for reelection. After each hearing session, Cabinet members will be given opportunities to discuss the witnesses’ proposals.

  4. Just before starting session 1 of the cabinet meetings, distribute the video viewing handout, then show the first video clip from Episode 6, chapter 6 from 36:15 TO 40:15 about General Grant outflanking Robert E. Lee and the Battle of Cold Harbor.
  5. Briefly have students summarize the main points of the video clip, impact on the Union war effort and possible implications for Reconstruction. Then conduct the first hearing session. Allow members of the Cabinet to briefly discuss and/or ask questions of the witnesses
  6. Show the second clip from Episode 7, chapter 6 from 14:11 to 19:00 both about Lincoln’s troubled re-election.
  7. Conduct the second hearing session. Allow members of the Cabinet to briefly discuss and/or ask questions of the witnesses.
  8. Show the third video clip from Episode 8, Chapter 2 from 2:08 to 5:31 about the passage of the 13th Amendment, the formation of the KKK and the struggle of Robert E. Lee.
  9. Provide time for the Cabinet members to complete their Amendment Form and present their recommendations to the class for a vote.
  10. Give the cabinet open debate time on these issues and the questions they raise. Depending upon how many class sessions you can devote to this activity, you may need
  11. to set a time limit on debate on each of these issues.
  12. Have the entire class vote on each proposed amendment to the Amnesty Proclamation.

Activity 4: Debriefing

Discuss the following with students:

  • What might the Reconstruction era have been like had Abraham Lincoln lived?
  • Would Lincoln’s policies on Reconstruction have evolved over time had he lived? If so, speculate on how.
  • Would we consider him a greater or lesser president had he steered the nation through this most difficult time period? Discuss Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in terms of how it relates to Reconstruction.
  • To whom is the speech addressed; are Americans living in Confederate states included?
  • Does Lincoln view the end of slavery as incidental to the war or central to its meaning?
  • What does the speech bode in terms of Lincoln’s understanding of the process of Reconstruction? From the examples below, have each student select one and write an essay, or have them propose an essay topic of their own that encompasses issues covered in this lesson.
  • Compare Lincoln’s Amnesty Proposal to the Wade-Davis bill and analyze why he vetoed it.
  • Compare the Reconstruction goals of Democrats, Republicans and Radical Republicans after the war.
  • Compare Lincoln’s Amnesty Proposal with Congressional Reconstruction after the war.
  • Analyze the role that freed men and women played in shaping Reconstruction policy.


At the conclusion of the project, the teacher may evaluate students on the following essay topics. (In some cases the presentation of a graphic chart using a compare/contrast model would be appropriate.)

  • Active participation during discussions and activities and as a witness or cabinet member. Did they demonstrate a good grasp of the issues? Did they voice their opinions clearly and with conviction?
  • Completion of all graphic organizers.
  • Evaluate students’ essays using a suitable rubric. An example rubric that can either be used as is or adapted for a particular class is included at the end of the lesson.


  • Hold a Reconstruction Congress in which Democrats, Republicans and Radical Republicans present bills before Congress, debate them and formulate a program.
  • Compare and contrast how the Reconstruction era was interpreted in U.S. history books before and after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Joan Brodsky Schur

Joan Brodsky Schur is Social Studies Curriculum Consultant for the Village Community School in New York City where she has taught Social Studies and English for over 20 years.

Handout: Roles and Responsibilities of the President

The Roles of the President

  • Chief Executive: The President is the administrative head of the government. Duties include meeting with the cabinet, signing bills, issuing executive orders and appointing government officials.
  • Chief Diplomat: The President negotiates treaties with foreign governments. He also appoints ambassadors.
  • Chief of State: The President is the ceremonial head of the United States, speaking to the nation on topics of interest, meeting with important officials, and welcoming Heads of State from other countries.
  • Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces: The President is the civilian head of the military and can order troops into battle or send them overseas.
  • Chief Legislator: The President recommends legislation to Congress. The President can also threaten to veto bills s/he opposes.
  • Chief of Party: The President is the political party leader of his or her and helps members get elected. The president campaigns for those members who support his or her policies.

The Responsibilities of the President

As prescribed in Article 2 of the Constitution


SECTION 1: The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term…

SECTION 2: The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;…

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law…

SECTION 3: He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient, he 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; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.


The following items can be found at the Library of Congress American Memory website or the National Archives website.

  • Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, October 3, 1863. In the National Archives
  • Abraham Lincoln, April 30, 1864. List of Sioux Indians Pardoned.
  • From John Pope to Abraham Lincoln, November 24, 1862 (Telegram concerning the 300 Sioux condemned to death)
  • Presidential Proclamation 94 of September 24, 1862 Suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus. National Archives.
  • President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. National Archives.
  • Telegram from General William T. Sherman to President Abraham Lincoln announcing the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, as a Christmas present to the President, December 22, 1864. National Archives.
  • Telegram from President Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Lincoln, April 28, 1864. National Archives.
  • Message of President Abraham Lincoln nominating Salmon P. Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, December 6, 1864. National Archives.
  • Message of President Abraham Lincoln nominating Ulysses S. Grant to be Lieutenant General of the Army March 1, 1864. National Archives.

As you examine the document, answer the following questions on an index card.

  • Title of the document
  • Date of the document if available, including day and month
  • Author or creator of the document
  • Nature of the document –or designate as personal or private
  • Two or three sentence summary of the document
  • The document and its relationship to the Constitution (if relevant). Under what powers ofthe Executive branch does it fall, if any?

Discussion Questions

  • Briefly summarize the content of the document. What is the president trying to accomplish in it, or what is being asked of him?
  • What role do you think president is playing in the document?
  • Under what Constitutional authority is the president acting in this document? Do you feel he is acting within his powers as president given that the country is at war, or do you think he may have exceeded them? Why?

Handout: Lincoln’s Plans for Reconstruction


Locate a copy of Lincoln’s Reconstruction plans at American Memory on the Library of Congress website. There is an option to hit “transcription” for a typed version of the
handwritten original.

With your partners, examine the document and take notes answering the following questions:

  • Under what Constitutional powers granted to the Executive branch of government does Lincoln justify his actions?
  • If secession was illegal, did the Confederate states ever leave the Union? If the Confederate states have declared themselves a new nation and a foreign country, are they subject to the laws of Congress and proclamations of the President? What is your view? What is Lincoln’s view?
  • Who is pardoned under the proclamation? Who is not pardoned? What is the purpose of denying many Southerners a pardon?
  • How does President Lincoln insure that the newly constructed loyal states will abolish slavery? Does he do so to your satisfaction?
  • Other than their freedom, what does the President provide for the freed slaves? What else could he or should he provide in your opinion?
  • Do you think that a state should be considered loyal when 10% of its population takes the loyalty oath? Why or why not? What was Lincoln’s purpose in arriving at this figure?
  • In terms of the Union war effort, imagine what might happen in a state like Arkansas or Louisiana (among the first to be reconstructed under this plan). What benefits or problems could you predict?
  • Who has the ultimate responsibility for seating the representatives of the newly reconstructed states in Congress? Could they be elected in their states but refused  seats in Congress? Why or why not?
  • Do you feel Lincoln has exceeded his powers as Chief Executive under the Constitution? Why or why not?

To complete the T-Chart below, review the questions above.













Handout: Cabinet Meeting on the Subject of Reconstruction: For Cabinet Members

As members of Lincoln’s Cabinet, you are to consider several things:

  • Is the Amnesty Proclamation an effective way to restore the Union as the war proceeds?
  • Is the Amnesty Proclamation a fair way to restore the Union?
  • How can the Amnesty Proclamation best be revised?

Listen carefully to the people presenting their concerns regarding the Amnesty Proclamation and take notes.

First Session Witness Notes
Russell A. Alger  


Bland W. Ballard  


Horace Maynard  


Second Session Witness Notes
E.D. Jennings  


John F. Dent  


Norreddin Cowen  


Salmon P. Chase  


After having listened to the two cabinet meetings, you are to write one amendment that changes one aspect of the Amnesty Proposal as it would apply during war time. Select one of the following topics and complete the form below to prepare for the cabinet meeting and vote on the Amnesty Proclamation:

  • Changes to the oath of loyalty.
  • Changes as to who is eligible or not eligible to be pardoned.
  • Changes as to the percentage of oath takers required to make a state eligible for reconstruction.
  • Changes as to who is eligible to vote in the reconstructed state.
  • Changes as to what will be provided to the Freedmen either by the Federal government or the reconstructed state.

I hereby submit the following amendment:

The following portion of the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction of December 8, 1863 which reads:

shall henceforth read as follows: ___________________________________________________

The reason for the suggested change is that: __________________________________________

Handout: Cabinet Meeting on the Subject of Reconstruction: For Witnesses


1. Go to American Memory to find your letter. Note: There is an option to hit “transcription” for a typed version of the handwritten original.

List of Letters for the first Cabinet session:

  • Russell A. Alger to John G. Nicolay, February 9, 1864. (He views the Amnesty Proclamation as an effective way to undermine the Confederacy.)
  • Bland W. Ballard to Abraham Lincoln, June 11, 1864 (Recommends revoking the Amnesty Proclamation on the basis that the Rebels are merely using it to plot further treachery against the Union.)
  • Horace Maynard to Abraham Lincoln, February 2, 1864. (He complains that men always loyal to the Union are being put on the same footing as men who had joined the Confederacy and later pledged loyalty under Lincoln’s Amnesty Proclamation.)

Letters for the second Cabinet session:

  • E.D. Jennings to Abraham Lincoln, January 22, 1864. Jennings wants to know what Lincoln plans to do for the Freedmen. The student playing this role can make a variety of his or her own suggestions in this case.
  • John F. Dent to Abraham Lincoln, February 16, 1864. Dent complains that slaves and Freedmen are being “enticed” and “coerced” off lands that needs workers.
  • Norreddin Cowen to Abraham Lincoln, January 24, 1864.
  • Cowen is reporting on the condition of Freedmen in Louisiana and asking for seed for them to plant.
  • Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, April 11, 1865. Chase believes that Freedmen must be given the vote.

2. Use the following template to prepare for your hearing:

  • Who is writing the letter? (name and description – a freedman, military leader, citizen) Who is the letter written to?
  • Does the letter writer generally support or disagree with the Amnesty Proclamation?
  • What does the letter writer want to see changed (or left as is) in the Amnesty Proclamation?
  • What reasons does the letter writer give for their position on the Amnesty Proclamation?

3. As you present your views on the Amnesty Proclamation, imagine the role of the letter writer. Try to present the contents of the letter without reading it. Make the members of the Cabinet believe you have some firsthand experience of the situation that you have “lived through.”

Handout: Assessment Rubric: Reconstruction Essay

CATEGORY 4 3 2 1
Organization Information is very organized with well- constructed paragraphs and subheadings. Information is organized with well-constructed paragraphs. Information is organized, but paragraphs are not well-constructed. The information appears to be disorganized.
Amount of Information All topics are addressed and all questions answered with at least 2 sentences about each. All topics are addressed and most questions answered with at least 2 sentences about each. All topics are addressed, and most questions answered with 1 sentence about each. One or more topics were not addressed.
Quality of Information Information clearly relates to the main topic. It includes several supporting details and/or examples. Information clearly relates to the main topic. It provides 1-2 supporting details and/or examples. Information clearly relates to the main topic. No details and/or examples are given. Information has little or nothing to do with the main topic.
Voice The writer’s voice is individual and engaging, demonstrating awareness of and respect for the audience and the purpose. The writer’s voice is appropriate to the purpose and engages the audience. The writer’s voice is generally clear but may not be fully engaged with the audience or purpose. The writer’s voice is indifferent and unengaged with the audience and purpose.
Mechanics No grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors. Almost no grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors A few grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors. Many grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors.