Historians divide their materials into primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are documents from the time being studied. Books, newspaper articles, letters, diary entries, movies, speeches or photographs can all be primary sources. Primary sources are documents from the time you are studying.

Secondary sources are materials produced by people in a later period. For example, Theodore Roosevelt's speeches are primary sources. Edmund Morris' 1982 biography of Roosevelt is a secondary source. Newspapers from 1967 are primary sources for the study of the sixties, and especially the study of 1967. But any book or magazine article or movie published much after 1967 is a secondary source.

There are a few more complicated cases. For example, a memoir of the sixties by Bob Dylan would be a primary source, even if it was published in 1998, because it contains the recollections of someone who was alive in 1967. But a book about Bob Dylan written by an historian of the same age would be a secondary source. In the simplest sense, primary sources are things produced during the time you are studying.

In this class you will be asked to work extensively with primary sources. This means analyzing and making sense of documents from the time period, largely on your own. How do you do this?

One of the first things you will notice about primary sources is that they don't do exactly what you want. They often approach their subject in ways that seem odd to us, or indirect. Good historians recognize this as important. Very often questions that are important to us had not even been considered by people in an earlier period. Modern readers are often concerned with racism, for example. But Americans writing in 1900 used racist forms of expression casually.

Try this experiment. Go to the library of Congress "life histories" search page. This page contains several thousand memoirs of ordinary people compiled in the 1930s. Enter any subject word that interests you into the "search" box, and see what results you get. Odds are the people of the 1930s understood this word very differently. The past, it's sometimes said, "is a foreign country." So approach historical documents as records of a different world. Try to have "fresh eyes." If the documents you read frustrate you, think about why.

But at the same time, make careful note of what you find. In the assignment on reconstruction, we are asking you to recreate the range of opinions on the issue of land confiscation. There are a number of points you should be sure to consider with each document.

1. Who wrote or produced this document? What might have been at stake for them? Was the author a former slave, or a former slave owner? A northerner sympathetic to the freed people, or someone who mostly wanted to get cotton production back up to speed?

2. What is the date? You should check the date on the document you are considering against the timeline of reconstruction we have provided. It's important to know, as precisely as possible, what was going on at the time.

3. Who was the audience for this document? Was it other slaves? Or was it landowning southern whites?

4. What is the essence of the argument--what's the point? Sometimes there is a single point, sometimes there are many points which together lead to a single conclusion.

5. How did the author make the case? Was the language tough and aggressive, or gentle and conciliatory? Was it designed to inflame emotions, or appeal to logic? More subtly, does the kind of language used tell you anything less obvious about the author and the time? For example, Thaddeus Stevens in one speech refers to the freedmen as "four millions of injured, oppressed, and helpless men." This sort of phrase is powerful, but also revealing. Were the freedmen and women "helpless?" Or was Stevens reflecting a general sense of superiority in treating African Americans as children?

History is a creative endeavor. Try to approach these sources without preconceived ideas, and open your imagination to the difference between the past and the present. You are constructing an interpretation, an argument. Your papers and essay answers will be your opinions, supported by historical evidence. We welcome speculation, creativity, and risk taking, but we insist that you prove your arguments.

 

Guide to Citation
Guide to using Primary Sources
Guide to Writing the Paper

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