Lesson Plan: Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals

A step-by-step guide to teaching this article in your classroom


Students will identify how Lincoln’s interactions with members of his Cabinet affected his leadership during the Civil War.


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.5, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.6, W.6-8.1, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.4, W.6-8.7, W.6-8.8

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.


• Pair this play with a unit on the Civil War. Incorporate this piece into a lesson on the presidency and legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

• Use this play to deepen understanding of the causes and effects of the Civil War.

• Share this piece to spark a discussion about the qualities that are important in a leader.

Before Reading


Ask students: What do you know about President Abraham Lincoln? What words best describe him? Why? Would you believe that some of his closest advisors did not respect him?


Remind students that the Civil War was fought from 1861-1865 between the United States and the Confederate States of America, which was made up of 11 Southern states that had seceded from the Union. Seven of those states seceded right after Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election. At that time, the issue of slavery was bitterly contested between the North and South, and Lincoln was in the Republican Party, which was against slavery.

Read & Analyze


Assign roles and read the play aloud together as a class. Encourage students to use their voices, facial expressions, and posture to convey their characters’ thoughts and emotions.


• MAIN IDEA: Why do historians call Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet his “team of rivals”?
(Lincoln gave powerful positions in his Cabinet to Senator William Seward of New York, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and Judge Edward Bates of Mississippi. He had won out over all three of them to become president. The men disliked Lincoln and each other.)

• MAKE INFERENCES: What were the advantages of having Cabinet members who disagreed with Lincoln?
(Possible answers include: Lincoln could hear perspectives different from his own before making major decisions. He did not have to worry that people were agreeing with him just to make him happy.)

• SUMMARIZE: What were the arguments for and against resupplying Fort Sumter?
(For: The troops at Fort Sumter were running dangerously low on food. If the fort was surrendered, the South could claim the North lacked courage. Against: Sending in aid could anger the South and start a war.)

• COMPARE AND CONTRAST: How did Seward’s feelings toward Lincoln change over the course of the Civil War? What statements show this change of heart?
(During and after the election, Seward viewed Lincoln as a rival. He strongly disapproved of Lincoln’s decision to reinforce Fort Sumter in 1861 and said he wanted nothing more to do with Lincoln’s administration. A year later, Seward had come to respect Lincoln. In a letter to his wife, Seward wrote: “The president is the best of us.” After Lincoln’s death in 1865, Seward said of Lincoln: “I believe that all men will come to see him as I have: a true, loyal, patient, patriotic, and benevolent man.”)

• EXPLICIT INFORMATION: When did the Emancipation Proclamation go into effect, freeing slaves? How much longer after that did the war last?
(The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. The war ended a little over two years later, on April 9, 1865.)

• DRAW CONCLUSIONS: After Lincoln’s death, why might Seward have described the president as a “benefactor of the country and the human race”?
(Possible answers include: Because Lincoln freed the slaves, because the choices Lincoln made before and during the war helped preserve the United States, because Lincoln put the good of the country ahead of his own feelings, such as when he made Salmon P. Chase chief justice of the Supreme Court despite the fact that Chase had spoken badly about Lincoln as a person and as a president.)

Extend & Assess

Have students research and create a time line of major events and battles during the Civil War using britannica.com and other trustworthy sources.

Ask students to imagine that they are Lincoln during the start of the Civil War. Ask: How might it have felt to hear that your closest advisors were insulting and criticizing you publicly? How might you have kept that from interfering with your leadership decisions? Then have students write a journal entry from Lincoln’s perspective, including details from the play.

As a class, read a famous speech by Lincoln, such as the Gettysburg Address or his second inaugural address. Have students write their answers to the following questions, or discuss them as a group: What was Lincoln saying in this speech? What did he emphasize most? How might this speech have made people feel at the time?

Split students into groups and assign each group to the North, the South, or a border state. Have each group research the causes of the Civil War from their assigned perspective. Then invite groups to share their findings with the class.

Have students choose one of the historical figures in the play, and then research and write a short biography about that person. Students could also write and perform a speech in that person’s voice.


Lower Level Preview challenging vocabulary terms from the play, including benevolent, buffoon, demotes, dissension, emancipation, and rout.

Higher Level Have students research and write a short report describing the origins and purpose of the Cabinet. Ask: Does the Cabinet today serve the same purpose as it did during Lincoln’s time?

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