This lesson uses video from American Masters: Bill T. Jones: A Good Man to help students identify and understand the controversies surrounding the ideas, attitudes and actions of Abraham Lincoln. The documentary chronicles the intense creative journey of Bill T. Jones as he works to prepare a performance piece in honor of Lincoln’s 200th birthday. Students take their cue to investigate Lincoln by watching a segment from the documentary in which Jones poses the question “Was Lincoln a good man, question mark or a good man, exclamation!” Students begin by using quotes by Lincoln within the video to spur a discussion on whether or not Lincoln was “a good man.” In the learning activity, students consult primary sources to further their investigations into the life of Lincoln and, as a culminating activity, write a one page argument essay taking a position on Jones’ question.
(1-2) 50 minute sessions
What Does He Have to Say to Us Today?
Was Lincoln a White Supremacist?
Lincoln's Early Views
Students may find additional resources from the PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln helpful
in their research.
Abraham Lincoln Papers
at the Library of Congress
Teaching American History Document Library - Lincoln Collection
- Tell students they will be watching a video from
the documentary American Masters: Bill T. Jones: A Good Man. Begin by sharing some background information about the documentary: Bill T. Jones is immersed in the process of creating an original dance-theater piece commissioned by the Ravinia Festival in Chicago for Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.
- Ask students to think about the title “A Good Man.” In a class discussion, ask students what connections they make between Abraham Lincoln and the title of the documentary. Before watching the video, ask students to pay attention to the place in the video where Bill T. Jones says "…..but I’ve always been very much in the camp that this was a Good Man. Now, a good man, question mark? Or a good man, exclamation!" Ask students to think about what he might mean by this statement. What is the difference between the question and the exclamation? Play
What Does He Have to Say to Us Today?
- After watching the video, ask students to summarize what they think Bill T. Jones means by the question he posed about Lincoln. Then ask students
to share their personal opinions about Lincoln.
- Play the video a second time. This time, ask students to jot down the various Lincoln quotes cited in the video. (Note: Feel free to pause the video multiple times for understanding.)
Lincoln’s words quoted in the video:
"And I am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
"We are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."
"I am not, nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, it is not the sole question, if indeed it is any part of it. We cannot make them equal."
- Ask students to think about each quote. Then ask them to return to Bill T. Jones' question of whether Lincoln was "a good man, question mark, or a good man, exclamation!" Based on the Lincoln quotes they’ve located, ask how they would answer the question now. Do they have enough information in each quote to determine if he was or was not a good man? Ask students to think about the context in which Lincoln made the statements. Does it make a difference to know or understand the context in which a statement is made? Are there any conflicting ideas or attitudes among the quotes?
- Next, ask students to form small groups for a research project. Explain that they will be researching primary source documents to help them identify and evaluate Lincoln’s ideas, perspectives and his response to the events and challenges he faced. Ask students to then write a one page summary of their findings to present within their group or to the entire class.
(Note: You may choose to direct students to use the web links below to locate primary sources. You may also want to assign one source to a pair of students within each group so that student teams or pairs can report back and share their findings with the class. It may be helpful to extend this activity to
multiple days to allow students to complete their research and summaries. If
possible, make multiple copies of student summaries to share in class.)
· Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
· Teaching American History Document Library - Lincoln Collection
(Note: This research and writing project can
be assigned as homework or a Day 2 classroom assignment.)
- Based on their research and discussions, students write one-page argument essays taking a position on whether or not Abraham Lincoln was “a good man.” Encourage students to incorporate the research culled from the shared class summaries completed prior to this assignment. Students should support their arguments with evidence from at least three primary sources and provide reasons for the position they take.
- For an additional challenge, direct students to move beyond primary sources to locate critical writing about Abraham Lincoln. They may want to begin by (but are not limited to) the work of historians and authors briefly mentioned in the video.
- Ask students to locate critiques of Lincoln’s viewpoints, attitudes and decisions as a lawyer/politician and as President. Guide students to give some thought to the critiques with a view to including those criticisms that support their argument.