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C U R R I C U L U M    M A T E R I A L S

Paula Seifert


Main Ideas
As Thomas Jefferson once said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter." In 1735, John Peter Zenger, a German immigrant who ran a printing press, went on trial for publishing accusations against the governor of New York. The outcome of his trial helped to establish a freedom deemed so vital that the Founding Fathers included it in the Bill of Rights, freedom of the press. By 1775 thirty-seven colonial newspapers took sides based on political viewpoints. The country's first daily paper was established in 1783 in Pennsylvania. These early publications covered little news; rather, they were a medium for essays, letters, editorials, and advertising. In 1833 Benjamin Day started the New York Sun, which carried real news, selling for one cent. At this price, newspapers became accessible to more of the American public. A large city may have been home to eight or nine competing papers. In 1844 a new invention — the telegraph — accelerated the transmission of newsworthy events. However, it did not come into wide usage until the Civil War.

A free press is central to democratic government, but with that role comes responsibility. Too often, that duty becomes clouded by a journalist's bias that comes through in his/her writing. Beginning with George Washington, every American president has differed with newspapers covering their administrations. Abraham Lincoln was no exception. Even his hometown press in Springfield, Illinois, had competing papers— the Illinois State Journal and the Illinois State Register—that varied in their political philosophies. Although Lincoln had an uncanny ability to turn bad news into humor, he was not immune to negative press. He may not have read newspapers on a daily basis in the White House, but he certainly was aware of what they were saying about him. He said, "Public opinion in this country is everything." Lincoln certainly understood the importance of newspapers in a democracy.

Connection with the Curriculum
These lessons are appropriate for U.S. history, government, or language arts.

Teaching Level
Grades 10-12, as presented.
Grade 8, modified lessons.

Materials for Each Student

• A copy of the narrative portion of this article

• Overhead transparencies of present-day editorials and political cartoons. These can be copied and given as handouts.

• Overhead transparencies of political cartoons of Lincoln that were published during the Civil War

• Copies of the weekend newspaper comic sections

• Research materials on Lincoln

• Coloring tools: markers, crayons, or colored pencils

• Unlined paper

Objectives for Each Student

• Understand the role of newspapers in a democratic society.

• Recognize underlying bias in printed material.

• Analyze political cartoons and their messages.

• Evaluate information received through the various media.



Opening the Lesson
Have students recall recent newspaper headlines and their initial reactions to them. Headlines could include "Rosty's bad ways mean jail"; "Americans stand their ground in Russia"; and "U.S. seizes Unabomber suspect." Discuss any underlying prejudice in these headlines. Read a recent editorial, either from the school paper or a local one. Discuss the intent of the editorial. Concerning the Civil War, discuss the division in the United States according to political philosophies, including that of Abraham Lincoln. Assign the activities.

Developing the Lesson
In the first activity, students will write two short editorials (one or two paragraphs each) about events during Lincoln's administration. They will adopt a pro-Lincoln stance in one of the articles, writing for the Illinois State Journal and then an anti-Lincoln stance, for the Illinois State Register. The students will need to be reminded that an editorial is a forum for the newspaper staff to air its opinion on a certain issue.


The second activity will require some research into Lincoln's life during his presidency. The student will write a short article about Lincoln that would have been so important to the President that he was carrying in his pocket when he died. It may have been something personal about a family member or a particular event in the war.

The third activity is one in which a student with artistic talent can be most effective. Using overhead transparencies or copies, the students will view political cartoons of Lincoln during his terms as president. The students should discuss what the cartoonist was saying in each one. The students will then design their own political cartoon about Lincoln. Students less artistically inclined can trace pictures of Lincoln or current cartoon characters and create some message about Lincoln. Students should be reminded that the cartoons need not be humorous; sarcasm or irony is acceptable.

Concluding the Lesson
Volunteers will read aloud their editorials while the rest of the class guesses whether it is pro-or anti-Lincoln. Several cartoons can be copied onto overhead transparencies and shared with the class while the students interpret what the cartoonist was telling his audience. Students will share their articles about Lincoln.

Extending the Lesson
Have students bring in copies of current editorials, cartoons, or articles and share their reactions with the class.

Assessing the Lesson
The editorials, cartoons, and articles will be assigned grades as to each teacher's expectations. Originality, clarity, and writing styles should be the main points assessed.


Handout 1 - Written Editorial

The newspaper editorial is often referred to as the "voice of the paper." Different types of editorials have different intentions. One might be written to explain an issue, criticize a policy, answer a criticism, warn the reader, or to praise someone. The main idea of an editorial is to grab the attention of its readers, then to persuade the reader to agree with the newspaper's view.

Choosing one of the following events, you have been assigned to write a pro-Lincoln editorial for the Illinois State Journal and an anti-Lincoln editorial for the Illinois State Register. Remember, at the conclusion of your editorials, you want the reader to agree with you.

Event 1
In 1861 Mrs. Lincoln overspent a $20,000 congressional appropriation by $6,700 for the purpose of redecorating the White House. With the money she purchased new china, books, carpets, heating, and lighting. Fearing that her husband would become angry, Mary Lincoln asked the Commissioner of Public Buildings to explain these overruns to the president. When Mr. Lincoln learned of his wife's actions, he was so incensed that he said that "it would stink in the nostrils of the American people..."

Event 2
Emilie Todd, Mary Todd Lincoln's younger half-sister, married a West Point graduate in 1856. In 1861 President Lincoln offered Ben Hardin Helm a commission in the Union army which he declined, instead joining the Confederate side. He was killed at Chicamauga in 1863. Mrs. Lincoln convinced her husband to invite Emilie and her daughter to the White House for a visit. When a wounded Union general, Dan Sickles, learned of this, he went straight to the President to confront him about the rebel staying at the White House. Shortly thereafter, Emilie Helm and her daughter left with a presidential pass to get her safely through Union lines. However, Lincoln later revoked this pass.

Voice of the Paper


Handout 2 - Written Editorial

At the time of Lincoln's assassination, his pockets contained the following: 1) one pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, 2) one pair of folding spectacles, 3) one ivory pocket knife, 4) one watch fob, 5) one large handkerchief, 6) one sleeve button, 7) a leather wallet holding a Confederate note and nine newspaper clippings. After studying Lincoln during his presidency, write a three to four paragraph article that could have been so important to Lincoln that he carried it at the time of his death. Remember, an article should be an accurate, unbiased account that presents the facts from a non-partisan viewpoint.


Handout 3 - Editorial Cartoon

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an editorial cartoon could be said to be worth a thousand editorials. An editorial cartoon is usually simply designed and centers on one topic. After you have viewed political cartoons about Lincoln, design your own cartoon, drawing freehand or tracing. You may wish to use Lincoln or perhaps a current cartoon character that discusses something about Lincoln's policies. You should first choose whether you will adopt a pro-or anti-Lincoln view. After drawing your cartoon, add text, if desired, then color it. Consider the cartoons below from Samuel A Tower, Cartoons: The Art of Political Satire (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 108-109. They depict alternative views of Lincoln in the North—peacemaker and conqueror.

Political Satire Cartoons of Lincoln

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