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Historical Era

Thinking Skill


Letter to President Abraham Lincoln from Annie Davis

Launch Lesson

National Archives Education Team
Making Connections
Historical Era:
Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
Primary Historical Thinking Skill:
Historical Analysis & Interpretation
blooms taxonomy
Bloom's Taxonomy:

Use to create an Activity

Letter to President Abraham Lincoln from Annie Davis


Students will study a letter from Annie Davis, a woman who was enslaved in Maryland and wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War to find out if “we are free.” The students will decide if she received her freedom from any of three documents: a proposed amendment from 1861 that would have prevented legislation interfering with states’ rights to regulate slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The students must analyze each document to find out if and when Annie was freed.

Author’s Notes

Many students do not realize that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all enslaved people in the United States in 1863. Not until the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865, did the entire enslaved population receive their freedom - including Annie Davis.

This activity can help introduce students to the Emancipation Proclamation, or provide an opportunity for older students for an in-depth class discussion about the politics and legal complications of emancipation. For grades 4-6, or as a warm-up activity for high school students. Approximate time needed is 10 minutes.

Project the activity for the entire class and choose “To Slideshow.” Click on the first document and read it with students: Annie Davis’s letter. Model document analysis for students, and determine that Annie lived in Maryland. Explain that Maryland was a slave-holding state, but it did not choose to secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America. The border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri were the four slave states that made the choice to stay with the Union.

Show the “Details” of the next document. This document is a proposed Thirteenth Amendment from 1861 that was never ratified by the states. Discuss the question posed in the box following the document with students: “What would it have meant to Annie Davis if this amendment had been ratified by the states?” It would have let each state decide upon slavery and would NOT have freed Annie Davis.

Read Annie Davis’s letter again and then click on the Emancipation Proclamation. Choose “Details” and follow the link to a transcript of the Emancipation Proclamation, or provide a copy of the transcript to the students.

Ask students to read the second paragraph of the text and lead a class discussion about the fate of Annie Davis based on the question inside the next box in the slideshow. Would the Emancipation Proclamation have freed her? No

Look at Annie’s letter one more time, and then the draft of the Thirteenth Amendment that eventually passed. Follow the link to the transcript of the document in the “Details.” Discuss: Would the Thirteenth Amendment have freed her? Yes

After discussing the impact of the Thirteenth Amendment, click on “I’m Done” and discuss the first two concluding questions:

  1. Which document freed Annie Davis?
  2. Which document(s) did not free Annie and why?

Ask students to write a letter back to Annie Davis from President Lincoln. Discuss why President Lincoln could not have answered the letter.

This activity was based on a lesson by Michael Hussey and Liz Eder, published in the article “It is my Desire to be Free: Annie Davis’s Letter to Abraham Lincoln and Winslow Homer’s Painting A Visit from the Old Mistress,” in the May/June 2010 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) publication Social Education.

Extension: Students can discuss the changing roles between the enslaved person and the former mistress, and suggest what each person might be thinking in “A Visit from the Old Mistress,” by Homer Winslow.

For more information about the featured documents, follow the links below.

Documents in this activity: