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Active Viewing: Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided

PBS American Experience’s Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided is a 6 episode mini-series available as a 3 DVD set. The following activity focuses on the causes and consequences of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation through an active viewing of Episode 4: The Dearest of All Things (Disc 2). There is a companion website to the series, The Time of the Lincolns, that contains a Teacher’s Guide, primary sources, and episode transcripts.


  • Students will be able to describe the causes and consequences of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. 


Step 1: Introduce the documentary. Explain that at this point in the film, the South has seceded in the wake of Lincoln’s election and the Civil War has begun. In the North, there is a debate going on about Union war aims. Meanwhile, in the South, enslaved African Americans are running into Union army camps. 

Ask the preview focus question for Clip 1 Preserving the Union (12:10-16:52):

  • Why did Union generals return fugitive slaves to their Confederate owners?

Possible responses: Lincoln’s priority was to preserve the union, not free the slaves; he did not want to lose the support of slave-holding border states who had supported the Union; personally opposed slavery but did not think that the North would fight for this cause.

Show Clip 1, and then discuss responses, and follow up by asking: 

  • Who challenged Lincoln’s decision to prioritize “preserving the Union” over emancipating the slaves? How? 

Possible responses: Republicans, by exercising political pressure in Congress and the press; Contraband slaves by continuing to flee into Union camps and offer their services; some Union generals by defying policy and not returning slaves 

Step 2: Introduce the second clip: Lincoln is not willing to make emancipation a goal of the war, but it starting to think about what will happen if and when slaves are freed. So in the summer of 1862 he invites free black leaders to come to meeting at the White House to discuss his ideas. 

Give the preview focus question for Clip #2 Colonization, “An Old Scheme” (19:45-21:59): 

  • Ask half the room to listen for: what was Lincoln SAYING about the problem of emancipating enslaved people? 

  • Ask half the room to listen for: how do you think Lincoln was FEELING about the problem? 

Possible responses: Lincoln SAID that northern racism was forcing his hand, and that he saw no other option than voluntary colonization outside of the US; Lincoln may have been FEELING guilt, embarrassment, pressure, sadness, frustration, and also may have felt some prejudice against African Americans. 

Show Clip 2, and then discuss responses, and follow up by asking: 

  • How did free black leaders respond to Lincoln’s colonization idea, and do you think they influenced Lincoln in any way? 

Possible responses: free black leaders expressed their strong disapproval of colonization, saying that it was hypocritical and insulting to African Americans who had as much right to stay here as white people.

Step 3: Introduce the third clip by having a brief discussion about manpower and war. 

  • What kind of manpower (and woman power) do you need to wage and win wars? 

  • What manpower did the North have? 

  • What manpower did the South have? 

Then give the preview focus question for Clip #3 A Military Necessity? (22:00-24:47): 

  • What was the military situation in 1862? 

Show Clip 3, and then discuss responses, and follow up by asking:  

  • How does the military situation change Lincoln’s view of the war aims? 

Possible responses: Confederate war effort is dependent on slave labor; Union is suffering military losses, and recruitment issues; by freeing slaves will undermine the Confederacy and bolster the Union side. 

Step 4: Hand out copies of the Emancipation Proclamation (excerpt). Have students read it on their own once. Then, read it slowly to the group, and ask students to: 

  • Write a “M” next to words or phrases having to do with the military. 

  • Write a “CR” next to words or phrases having to do with civil rights. 

Show map of Civil War showing four slave-holding border states that remained loyal to the Union: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. 


  • According to the Emancipation Proclamation, who is now “forever free”? Roughly 3.5 million slaves in rebel states 

  • Who is not free? Roughly ½ million Slaves in Union border states 

  • How did the Emancipation Proclamation take effect in rebel states? Since the Confederacy still controlled the South, the Emancipation Proclamation was impossible to enforce, which is why some people say that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave. 

  • How did the Emancipation Proclamation actually change the lives of enslaved Americans? By once and for all providing legal and military guarantee of freedom, it motivated thousands of slaves to run away from their owners, and join the Union war effort as laborers, scouts, spies, nurses, cooks, and soldiers. 

Step 5: Introduce clip 4. Explain that by early summer of 1862, Lincoln was already working on a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation but decided to follow the advice to wait until a Union victory. This came on September 17, 1862 - the bloodiest day in American history. Nearly one of every four soldiers engaged was a casualty: killed, wounded, or captured. The Battle of Antietam, though not a stunning victory, did reverse the fortunes of the Rebels, and Lincoln considered it sufficient for his purpose. He issued the Proclamation five  days after the battle, though it was not signed into law until January 1, 1863. In this last clip, we watch a recreation of this dramatic moment and then hear different scholars explain what they thought was significant. 

Give the preview focus question for Clip #4: Emancipation Proclamation Becomes Law (42:16-48:42):

  • What adjectives do the historians use to describe the EP? 

Possible responses: “dull” “legal” “effective” “justice”.

Show Clip 4, and then discuss responses, and follow up by asking: 

  • Based on the discussion so far, are there any additional adjectives or ways of describing the Emancipation Proclamation that should be added?

Step 6: To conclude, ask the class to summarize: 

  • What were the different political, moral, and military factors that shaped Lincoln’s decision about how and when to free the slaves? 

Another option would be to divide the class in three sections and have one section summarize political factors, another moral factors, and another military factors, and then share out.

Historical Context

Once the shooting war began, President Abraham Lincoln insisted that the U.S. government was fighting to preserve the Union. He did not want to risk losing the support of four slave states fighting on the Union side: Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. Consequently, Lincoln went to great lengths to assure loyal slaveholders in these states that the key northern war aim was "union," and not "freedom" (the abolition of slavery).

But radicals in his own party, abolitionists, and almost everyone in the African-American community in the North wanted to turn the war for union into a crusade for freedom. The issue was not secession, they argued, but slavery or freedom. Abolitionists and Radical Republicans--an influential congressional minority in Lincoln's own party--saw things differently. They scoffed at the idea that Lincoln could preserve the Union without destroying slavery. Slavery, they contended, was precisely the issue that divided the Union into two nations. 

They also emphasized that the slave gave the South a crucial advantage: slaves did the work of feeding and clothing the Confederate Army, thus freeing white southerners for military duty. Consequently, if freedom became the North's war aim, the military advantage would shift from the Confederacy to the Union. Slaves would become a military asset for the North if they were granted freedom, since they would now have every incentive to sabotage southern production and/or run away to the Union side. 

Lincoln and his generals eventually saw the military wisdom of the Radical Republicans' argument for freedom as a war aim. Two factors accounted for their shift: 1) slaves forced the issue, particularly in Virginia, by escaping in increasing numbers to northern lines; and 2) the North suffered staggering military defeats in the first two years. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Active Viewing: Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 11, 2023,

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