Historical documents are an essential part of teaching history at the middle and high school level. They give the student a glimpse into the moment of history through the eyes of an observer, and they can help students understand the conflicting viewpoints of people in that time period.
While I love diving in and trying to understand complex historical documents, I’ve found that some students don’t enjoy it at all. Often the more archaic and difficult to understand texts are just an exercise in frustration to students. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t teach with historical documents, just that some students will need more help in decoding them than others. Giving context and an overview of the document is a good way to introduce the study of primary sources.
Below are five online resources for finding excellent American history first person accounts, essays, and writings.
50 Core Documents that Tell America’s Story
This is a wonderful resource from the Teaching American History website. The core documents of course include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and several of the Federalist papers. Great speeches by John C Calhoun, Frederic Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan are included, as well as documents such as the Monroe Doctrine.
The documents included cover the time from the founding of America up through the 1980’s. These are a great addition to any American history class, but they could also be used for a study of current events or modern topics. For example, the James Madison essay on “Property” could be an excellent source for talking about quite a few current political topics. Part of the essay reads:
In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.
Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.
Smithsonian’s History Explorer
The Smithsonian’s American History Museum website is chock full of educational resources. It is almost overwhelming with the amount of information and lesson plans available on this site. The website link above should take you into the list of primary sources and lesson plans for 7 – 12th grades. You can use the filters on the right side of the page to adjust to the era of history you are teaching.
The lessons and documents are varied and fairly interesting. For example, The Bracero Program: A Historical Investigation is an 11 page lesson plan on the program from 1942 – 1964 that brought in 4.6 million temporary workers from Mexico. This is a great lesson for those studying the time post WWII, and it also could be used for in looking at our current political issues with immigration reform.
National Archive’s Teaching with Documents
The whole National Archives website (archives.gov) is an almost overwhelmingly rich source of historical documents. You could spend hours and hours immersed in the records from Ellis Island,
The lesson plans are broken down by era and all include copies or images of historical documents. An example of a lesson plan from the post-Revolutionary War era is Teaching With Documents: Eli Whitney’s Patent for the Cotton Gin. In the lesson plan there is a digital copy of the first cotton gin patent along with background information on Whitney’s problem with the patent. While most of us remember from history class that Whitney’s cotton gin allowed the Southern cotton plantations to grow causing an increasing need for slave labor, I didn’t realize that Whitney had all kinds of problems with patent challenges and licensing of the patent. So after learning about and looking at the original cotton gin patent, students can also learn:
While Eli Whitney is best remembered as the inventor of the cotton gin, it is often forgotten that he was also the father of the mass production method. In 1798 he figured out how to manufacture muskets by machine so that the parts were interchangeable. It was as a manufacturer of muskets that Whitney finally became rich. If his genius led King Cotton to triumph in the South, it also created the technology with which the North won the Civil War.