American Portraits

Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Justice

In this lesson, students will learn about Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Students will specifically learn about how Lincoln’s actions conform to the idea of justice and how they can apply this idea into actions in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


On the morning of July 13, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln rode in a carriage with his Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to the funeral of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s infant son. During the bumpy ride over the rutted streets of Georgetown Heights, Lincoln undoubtedly dwelled morosely on the recent death of his own eleven-year-old son, Willie, as well as the frustrations of Union military defeats. However, Lincoln was ready to confide in the members of his Cabinet and took the opportunity to reveal a plan to free the slaves. Lincoln told Seward and Welles that he had “dwelt earnestly on the gravity, importance, and delicacy” of the subject. The president had concluded that freeing the slaves was a “military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union.” He intimated that he would use presidential war powers to emancipate the slaves by “proclamation in case the Rebels did not cease to persist in their war.” Seward and Welles were dumbfounded, and Seward interrupted that it was an issue with “vast and momentous” consequences and needed “mature reflection.” Welles was uncomfortable discussing the subject while traveling to a funeral.  However, Lincoln persisted in talking about emancipation which was the “absorbing theme” of the ride. They would soon continue the conversation with the rest of the Cabinet….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

What does Abraham Lincoln’s pursuit of justice teach us about how we can advance justice in our own lives?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Students will specifically learn about how Lincoln’s actions conform to the idea of justice and how they can apply this idea into actions in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Students will understand how they can act justly in their actions.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of justice to their own lives.


When President Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, he faced several significant dilemmas. The first was the general problem that while he abhorred slavery as a great moral evil, he recognized that the president and Congress had little power over slavery where it already existed.  Lincoln was deeply committed to the rule of law and constitutionalism and would not act unilaterally and unconstitutionally to ban slavery. Second, Lincoln’s election caused many Southern states to fear that the new president would interfere with slavery. Therefore, they began seceding from the Union. Third, once the war began, Lincoln had to decide what to do with slaves that ran away to Union armies or were in areas captured by those armies.

Radical Republicans in Congress and several Union army officers tried to force the commander-in-chief’s hand. In May 1861, only a month after the war began, Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler declared the slaves that ran to the Union-controlled Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia were contraband that could be seized and therefore liberated. In August, the president reluctantly signed the Confiscation Act, which allowed the federal government to take slaves used by the Confederate military.

That same month, Major General John Charles Frémont, head of the Department of the West, declared martial law in Missouri with a proclamation freeing the slaves. Lincoln asked him to modify it, and when Frémont was defiant, the president ordered it. The Radical Republicans passed the Second Confiscation Act, allowing slaves to be seized without a jury trial. Like the first Confiscation Act, the army largely ignored it. Finally, in April 1862, Major General David Hunter declared martial law on the Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts, freeing and arming the slaves. Lincoln furiously rescinded the order and informed all commanders they had no authority to free or arm slaves.

Lincoln even offered compensated emancipation to Border States such as Delaware and had to be careful to avoid any misstep that might make strategically-important Maryland, Kentucky, or Missouri join the Confederacy. Contrary to his contemporary and present-day critics, President Lincoln did not ignore the plight of four million slaves. He was acting prudently and sought to achieve the moral victory of ending slavery through constitutional means. Lincoln knew that a presidential proclamation and any of the efforts by his officers would be subject to the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. A constitutional amendment would be necessary to end slavery forever in the United States. In the meantime, any proclamation would have to be crafted with the greatest care to be constitutional, which was why Lincoln vetoed his officers’ attempts to free slaves.


  • Dilemma
  • Radical Republicans
  • Liberate
  • Martial Law
  • Morosely
  • Emancipation
  • Border States
  • Preserving
  • Intimated

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

Visit Their Website


Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Abraham Lincoln’s role in the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • Why did Abraham Lincoln structure the proclamation as he did?
  • What compromises have you made in your own pursuit of justice?
  • What does Abraham Lincoln’s tireless pursuit of justice say about his identity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation.  New York: Doubleday, 1963.
  • Guelzo, Allen. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.