The Trial of Abraham Lincoln: The Separation of Power

Civics Lesson Plans banner

Lesson At A Glance

This lesson is near the end of an 11th grade unit focuses on the founding of the nation and the eventual emergence of the United States as a world power.  This lesson is designed to integrate what the students have learned concerning the presidential powers defined in Article II of the U.S. Constitution and the use of those powers by Abraham Lincoln during and immediately following the Civil War.  Specifically, this lesson focuses on the standards by examining the effects of the Civil War and addressing the actions of President Lincoln during the war and the growing federal power over state authority. 

This lesson is preceded by a drama lesson focusing on the development of character, an element of theatre.


  • Students will deepen their understanding of the persons and events of the Civil War as well as the role of the courts and the dispensation of the presidential powers outlined in Article II of the U.S. Constitution.

Standards Addressed: 

History-Social Science

11.1 Students analyze the significant events in the founding of the nation and its attempts to realize the philosophy of government described in the Declaration of Independence.

11.1.3. Understand the history of the Constitution after 1787 with emphasis on federal versus state authority and growing democratization.

11.1.4. Examine the effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction and of the industrial revolution, including demographic shifts and the emergence in the late nineteenth century of the United States as a world power
Visual and Performing Arts Content Standards

2.1. Make acting choices, using script analysis, character research, reflection, and revision through the rehearsal process.

Common Core State Standards for ENGLISH LANGUAGE ART S & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading Grades 6-12

Key Ideas and Details

1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

3.  Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure

4.  Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

8.  Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

9.  Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

10.  Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing Grades 6-12

Text Types and Purposes

1.  Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

7.  Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

8.  Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Big Ideas/Essential Questions

  • The strength of a democracy is equal to the strength of its citizens. (We must understand, participate in, and further develop our system of government to ensure democracy).
  • E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one. (From a variety of sources and experiences, we have developed a successful government and legal system).

Essential Questions/Issues:

1. How is the Constitution a living document?

2. Is citizenship a right or a responsibility?

Higher Order Thinking Questions:

1. In your opinion, what are the implications today of Lincoln’s expansion of the emergency powers? (evaluation)

2. How would you modify the Emancipation Proclamation to not exceed Lincoln’s presidential powers as defined in Article II of the Constitution? (analysis)

3. Why did Lincoln pursue a hands-off policy towards his generals during the Civil War? Why was this policy significant? (application)




Students will be evaluated through informal checks for understanding, teacher observation, self-reflections, and performing an authentic task (GRASP) evaluated by a rubric. (See rubric and GRASP)

Click here to download the assessment tools

Activity Steps:

This lesson should be divided into 2 class periods per teacher discretion and student need.

Click here to download activity steps


Purpose Teacher  Students


Engage students

5 minutes

 “Can you think of an instance where you might have to break the law to do something right?”

Explain to students the concept of impeachment.  Ask the students what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated? Explain that they will be performing an impeachment trial of Abraham Lincoln based on witness testimony that they will give from their research papers and their ability to create effective characters.

Attend to a formal introduction.


Take notes as needed


Review research material for trial.

15 minutes

Review the Presidential emergency powers as provided for in the articles of the Constitution.

Choose prosecution and defense attorneys and pass out student research papers.

Hand out Statement of Charges and How to Reach a Verdict to the jurors.

Observe and contribute as needed to group progress. (assessment)

Take notes as needed.


Students review their characters from the research papers.
Attorneys choose their witnesses and prepare for trial.

Jurors review the handouts and prepare for trial.


20 minutes



10 minutes

Act as the “judge” during the trial.

Facilitate student needs.

Facilitate witnesses and substance of the trial.

Have all students reflect on learning. 

Attorneys present the trial, calling witnesses and questioning them regarding the actions of President Lincoln during the Civil War.

Jury renders a verdict.

Reflect on learning by completing the Student Reflection.

 Beyond Next steps include:

Lessons discussing the evolution of the Presidential emergency powers.

Next steps include:

Identification of the process and emergence of the emergency powers from Lincoln to Kennedy. 

Special Needs of students are considered in this lesson: 

Students are put into flexible grouping scenarios that will benefit learning for all types of learners and special needs. Hands-on learning with plenty of opportunities for movement, verbal, written, and nonverbal expression, and multiple learning modalities are available within the context of this lesson.

Extension Ideas:

This lesson may be repeated with different witnesses to determine different outcomes.  Students may research the process and development of the emergency powers as they are brought in to play by various presidents.



Materials and Resources Needed:

  • Handouts of the various materials covered
  • Research papers for witnesses
  • Costumes for the witnesses and attorneys.

Site including biographical information for all of the Secretaries of the Treasury
Biographical information about Salmon P. Chase
Notes about Salmon P. Chase from Lincoln’s white house.
Wikipedia review of the Lambdin Purdy Milligan case.
Notes about Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, from Lincoln’s white house.
Notes about Ulysses S. Grant, General of the Union Army, from Lincoln’s white house.
Notes about General McClellan from Lincoln’s white house.
Notes about William H. Seward, Secretary of State, from Lincoln’s white house.
Biographical information about Dorothea Dix.
Biographical information about Dorothea Dix.
Biographical information about Clara Barton.
Biographical information about Clara Barton.
Account of Major Robert Anderson during the battle of Fort Sumter.
Correspondence between Anderson and the Confederate commander for the surrender of Fort Sumter.
An account of Frederick Douglass from the White House.
Biographical information on David Goodman Croly.
The story behind the miscegenation hoax.


Student Handouts:

Download student handouts here