Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

The Election of 1860: An Analysis of Editorial Cartoons
Valerie Schrag
AP U.S. History
Time Frame:
30-45 minutes
Civil War

Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • The students will analyze editorial cartoons created in the context of the Election of 1860.  Students will use the primary sources to identify the major issues of this election and how those issues shaped the election’s outcome.

  • Analysis of primary sources of all types is an essential skill for success on the national Advanced Placement U.S. History exam.  Editorial cartoons often appear in both the multiple choice and DBQ essay sections of the exam, and students must be comfortable with this format to be prepared for this test.  

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

  • Kansas State Social Studies Standards – 8th Grade U.S. History, Benchmark 2, Indicator 3 – “retraces events that led to sectionalism and secession prior to the Civil War”
  • Kansas State Social Studies Standards – High School U.S. History, Benchmark 5, Indicator 3 – “uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S. history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating on its meaning”
  • Kansas State Social Studies Standards – High School Civics-Government, Benchmark 4, Indicator 1 – “examines the role of political parties in channeling public opinion, allowing people to act jointly, nominating candidates, conducting campaigns, and training future leaders”

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Mark Carnes & John Garraty, The American Nation: A History of the United States, 11th edition (2003), chapter 14

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • All of the editorial cartoons used in this lesson can be found online at the “HarpWeek: Explore History” website (www.harpweek.com).  Click on the link for “The Presidential Elections” and choose the Election of 1860.
    • “The Union Must and Shall be Preserved”
    • “Grand National Union Banner for 1860”
    • “Black Republican Argument”
    • “An Heir to the Throne”
    • “The Boat that Rides in Safety”
    • “Our Political Snake-Charmer”
    • “[Dividing the] National [Map]”
    • “Progressive Democracy – Prospect of a Smash Up”
    • “Columbia and Her Suitors”


  • The party platforms used in the Election of 1860 can be accessed at the website of “The American Presidency Project” (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/).  Click on “Documents” at the top of the homepage, and then select “Platforms” from the link on the left side of the webpage.  

Technology Required:

LCD Projector, screen, computer with PowerPoint software

Full description of activity or assignment.
  1. Prior to the day’s lesson, the students will be responsible for completing their homework for The American Nation, chapter 14 and for reading the party platforms of the Republican, Northern Democratic, Southern Democratic (Breckenridge Faction) and Constitutional Union parties.
  2. Start the lesson by identifying the major issues of the 1850s.  This will help set the stage for the analysis of the editorial cartoons from the Election of 1860.
  3. Discuss the key features of an editorial cartoon with the students.  Be sure each student understands the following terms: stereotype, satire, caricature, and exaggeration.
  4. Divide the students into pairs (or groups of 3 if you have a large class).  Give each pair one editorial cartoon from the list mentioned above.  Give each pair 5-10 minutes to analyze the cartoon, using the APPARTS strategy.  Students should concentrate on identifying the major issues, compare the cartoon to the party platforms, and analyze the cartoonist’s point of view.
  5. After each pair has had adequate time to analyze its cartoon, bring the entire class back together.  The teacher will then project an image of each cartoon onto the screen with the LCD projector.  The pair responsible for analyzing each cartoon will walk their classmates through their analysis and tie the cartoon back to the party platforms, sectionalism and the issues of the 1850s.
  6. Once each pair has presented, ask the students to assess the mood of the nation as reflected in these editorial cartoons.  What new information did they learn?  What information was missing?  What was the level of optimism and/or angst in the nation in 1860?
  7. Conclude the lesson by projecting an Electoral College map of the Election of 1860 onto the screen.  An excellent version of the map can be found on the website of The American Presidency Project (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/).  Click on “Elections” at the top of the homepage and then select the Election of 1860.  Use this information while discussing the Secession Crisis and the Crittenden Compromise.

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:
  • The test over the Civil War era will include an editorial cartoon not previously seen in class.  The students will be asked to analyze the cartoon using the APPARTS strategy and identify how the cartoon addressed the major issues and/or events of the Civil War era, including an analysis of the cartoonist’s point of view.