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Reading Abraham Lincoln: A Case Study in Contextualized Thinking

Abraham Lincoln statue from the Lincoln Memorial. NHEC

Teaching history is not only about teaching students what happened in the past; it’s about teaching them how to think about the past. Many students instinctively employ modern perspectives when reading historical documents—a practice historians call "presentism." Students have to be taught to "think contextually," learning to recognize how the past differed from the present. In a significant study, Sam Wineburg revealed that even among teachers contextual thinking is a unique skill that needs to be intentionally developed.

Wineburg and his colleagues worked with 12 pre-service teachers participating in a fifth-year certification program at the University of Washington. They asked those teachers to "think aloud" and make visible how the teachers thought about six historical documents from the nineteenth century.

In this small study, being a history major turned out not to be a reliable predictor of being able to contextualize historical documents. Even college students with strong history content knowledge can fall prey to presentism. The most sophisticated historical readers, on the other hand, build a social context for the historical documents they are reading, drawing inferences from each document, establishing a spectrum of ideas for the period, and reading multiple documents in conversation with each other.

Drawing Inferences from Documents

Historical documents tell readers something not only about their author, but also about the world in which he or she lived. One document from the study, for instance, is a campaign speech made by Abraham Lincoln, in which Lincoln seemingly reveals deep bigotry toward African-Americans. But Lincoln’s words cannot be separated from the occasion on which they were uttered, the location of the debate, or the kinds of people who were in attendance. In short, the speech may tell us something about Lincoln, but it may tell us even more about middle America in 1858.

Establishing a Spectrum of Ideas

In order to build a social context for understanding historical documents, students need to have a general understanding of what people thought about particular issues at that time. In the case of Lincoln’s comments on race, students can better understand the context in which he made them by reading documents written by defenders and opponents of slavery. Examining excerpts from white supremacist John Bell Robinson and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, for instance, helped successful readers understand how slavery was understood in Lincoln’s own time.

Reading Across Documents

Looking at the ways in which different documents from the same period inform each other is another way of building the social context of the past. The technique, which historians call "intertextual reading," involves reading each document with the others as backdrop, weaving them together to bring to life the world of the past.

Image of bust, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865, New York Public Library

In the Classroom 

The past, as L.P. Hartley wrote, is a "foreign country," which means that people thought, spoke, dressed, and lived in different ways than we do today.

  • Think about how you can help your students understand this strange place, where people lived differently, had different rights, and believed different things.
  • Begin by asking students to figure out where they stand on a particular issue. Then, reminding them that they are dealing with a different time and place, give them a number of documents focusing on a particular historical issue.
  • Have students make lists of what they can infer about the time period from these documents. How was it different from our world today?
  • See if students can use the documents to establish a spectrum of ideas for the period, and ask them if modern perspectives fall within the poles established by that spectrum.
  • Reminding them that they should be reading across the various documents, ask them to paint a general picture of this past world.

Sample Application 

The two excerpts below are from think aloud exercises with two participants in the study. While those participants were teachers rather than students, they nevertheless reflect the same strengths and weaknesses exhibited by younger readers. Take a look at the first one:

Lincoln was not so much...working in the interest of the black man, for altruistic sense. . . he’s not giving them equality in personhood.

The criticism that Lincoln is not giving African-Americans “equality in personhood” is a distinctly modern one that ignores the fact that Lincoln was operating in a very different time in American history. Further, the reader draws conclusions about what Lincoln stood for, ignoring the fact that Lincoln was speaking in the context of a political campaign.

Now take a look at how the second reader approaches a historical text:

. . . I get the feeling that he is wrestling with something that doesn’t really have a good solution. This is the best you can have for now. . . He was real one-dimensional in the first article, kind of a slimy politician. Then he has another side with the letter to Mary Speed, kind of human. And now this is again another, it’s beginning to fill out, but now I see him more as the chief executive and trying to deal with problems, trying to balance a war, thinking ahead, what are we going to do after the war and sort of coming up with—and this is prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Is this prior to the Emancipation Proclamation? Yes, this is prior. So, I mean he may have had this idea in mind, so he’s thinking forward, and how are we going to deal with this huge number of slaves? Maybe colonizing is certainly a viable option in 1862. It kind of reminds me of what the British did with Australia. Ship all the undesirables down to Australia.

Unlike the first reader, this seasoned one considers the fact that, however distasteful it strikes us today, creating a black colony may have been "a viable option in 1862." Further, instead of taking Lincoln’s words as clear evidence of what the future president believed, the reader notes that different Lincolns appear depending on the context: a "slimy politician" in one, a "human" side in a second, and a "chief executive" in a third.

For more information 

Teachinghistory.org's Teaching Guide Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) in the History Classroom further discusses leading students toward synthesized, contextualized understanding.

Avishag Reisman and Sam Wineburg, "Teaching the Skill of Contextualizing in History," The Social Studies 99, no. 5 (Sep-Oct 2008), 202-207.


Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).