Igniting an Appreciation for Abraham Lincoln in Children

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by RealClear Wire on February 1, 2024 and is crossposted here with permission.

Historians and the general public regularly rank Abraham Lincoln as America’s greatest president. There is little doubt that he is widely admired for the work he did to end slavery and preserve the Union.

But beyond these two important points, most Americans know little else about Lincoln’s life. A 2013 poll by Participant found that two-thirds of Americans admitted to knowing “little to nothing” about him. Eighty-three percent of respondents thought that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves in the United States. (It only freed the slaves in areas under Confederate control.) Another 40 percent believed that Lincoln was a Democrat. (Google only confuses matters when it lists his party affiliation as “National Union Party,” which was a temporary rebranding of the Republican Party during the 1864 presidential election.) In fact, Lincoln was the first Republican to be elected president.

As a professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University I spend a great deal of time teaching my students about Abraham Lincoln. I require them to read Lincoln’s speeches and letters in the hope that they will come to appreciate the greatness of his mind, the political constraints in which he operated, and the moral compass that led him to fight for the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Each summer I also teach these sorts of lessons to groups of high school teachers around the country. I find that teachers are eager to better understand Lincoln’s life and legacy and to find new ways to convey that information in their classrooms.

In addition to teaching about Lincoln, over the past 15 years, I’ve published many books about Lincoln and the Civil War Era. In the past 11 years I’ve also had two beautiful daughters. At night I often find myself reading or telling bedtime stories – sometimes about history, but more often about the antics of talking animals

Recently, I decided to bring these two aspects of my life together by working with my girls to write a fun and exciting children’s book that melds history and adventure into an educational but lively chapter book for early readers.

“My Day with Abe Lincoln” tells the story of a third grader named Lucy who doesn’t want to go to school on Monday morning. (For parents of young children this might sound all too familiar!) She throws a fit and dresses in the craziest outfit she can come up with, hoping that her parents won’t send her to school looking so weird.

When she puts on the top hat from her brother’s magic set she travels back in time to Indiana in the 1820s. She doesn’t know it yet, but her mission in the story is to give the hat to Lincoln. After meeting Abe and his sister Sarah on a dirt path in the woods, Lucy attends school with them. At the end of the day, she goes to the Lincoln cabin where she meets Abe’s father and stepmom. Along the way Lucy learns extraordinary, fascinating, true stories about the future president – like that he struggled with spelling and that he almost died several times when he was a child.

By the time young readers finish “My Day with Abe Lincoln,” they will know more about Lincoln’s childhood than most adults do. Children will also hopefully feel a connection to Lincoln as they see the hurdles he had to overcome to become our nation’s greatest leader.

I spent years researching the history behind this time-travel adventure, and I like to tell people that “My Day with Abe Lincoln” is historically accurate, except for the time travel! Parents and teachers who want to read this book with their children or students can find a free curriculum guide on the Reedy Press website that gives the history behind each chapter. The guide also provides primary sources and discussion questions that can be used in class.

As we celebrate the 215th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, I hope that we can reignite a sense of wonder about him in young Americans. They ought to know the story of the little boy who grew up in poverty and rural isolation – without education, who lost his mother at age nine, and who almost died several times – and yet who became the most admired and revered of Americans. We owe it to him, and to ourselves, to better understand his life and legacy so that we can truly appreciate his accomplishments as president.

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7 thoughts on “Igniting an Appreciation for Abraham Lincoln in Children

  1. What isn’t being said about “Lift Every Voice and Sing (the purported Black national anthem) is that it was written in 1899 as a Hymn to praise Lincoln. It was only 34 years after his assassination (we’re 35 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall) and there would have been people with a living memory of Lincoln’s Presidency.

    Remember too that it would be another 14 years before Woodrow Wilson took office and proceeded to segregate the Federal Government — it hadn’t been before that. The Klan had been crushed in the 1870s (Wilson helped bring it back) and while Jim Crow existed, things got a lot worse in the early 20th Century.

    The true tragedy was his assassination. If he’d had those four years to implement the policy he outlined in his Second Inaugural Address, I think a lot of things would have been different…

  2. So Lincoln *also* struggled with spelling?

    I’m amazed at the number of Presidents who struggled with spelling (eg Jackson), or with word order (eg Busk 43), or stuttering (eg Biden) — it’s quite a few more as well.

    Today there is a good chance these men would be diagnosed with learning disabilities.

  3. This is a superb essay.

    Abraham Lincoln was steeped in the King James Bible. This is one of the things that allowed him, without speechwriters and spin doctors, to craft some of the most exquisite words ever spoken in public in American history. His second inaugural addess: “Fondly do we hope, ferverently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war will speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years on unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    1. “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

      1. What’s sad is that I had a BA in Political Science from what was then a reasonably respectable department (it has since gone off the rails) along with a few other degrees and had never seen this speech until one night when I saw it chiseled into the wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

        It truly was a tragedy that Lincoln was assassinated because I think his replacement of Hannibal Hamlin (of Bangor, ME) with Andrew Johnson indicated a willingness to actually “walk the walk” on this.

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