Foundation of History

Guidelines for “Primary Source Analysis” Assignment

Primary sources provide the foundation for historians’ reconstructions of the past. To use primary sources with confidence, historians need to be alert to potential causes of bias, distortion, and inaccuracy in the documents. This assignment will give you practice in identifying such causes by analyzing primary sources to compare different perspectives about the Reconstruction Era.

To complete the assignment, follow the five steps below (pages 1-2):

Step 1. Review the essay prompt:

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the meanings of “freedom” and “civil liberties” underwent dramatic transformations in American society. How did these major changes reshape the lives of ordinary people during the Reconstruction Era? Why have historians called Reconstruction America’s “Unfinished Revolution?” Be sure to consider political, economic, and cultural factors in your analysis.

Step 2. Locate the set of primary sources from Week 2. These primary sources are available on Canvas and in your course reader. (Please do not do outside research for this assignment.)

Those sources are:

  1. Mississippi Black Code (1865)
  2. Frederick Douglass, “What the Black Man Wants” (1865)
  3. Jourdon Anderson, letter to his former enslaver (1865)
  4. Testimony on the Ku Klux Klan in Congressional Hearing (1872)

Step 3. Read these primary sources carefully, while considering the Primary Source Analysis questions below:

  1. Who wrote each document, and for whom was it written? What does this suggest about the point of view reflected in each document?
  2. Why was each document written, and what form does it have? A document’s purpose and form (e.g. legal testimony, letters, newspapers) will affect the information it includes and excludes.
  3. How do author, audience, purpose, and form relate to the event that the source describes? Was the author in a position to have reliable knowledge of the event or phenomenon? Does the author have any reason to avoid telling the truth as he or she saw it?
  4. What is the tone and message of each source? What do you think accounts for differences between them?
  5. Whose voices might be missing from this document? What impact might these silences have on your answer to the essay prompt?
  6. What are the strengths and limitations of this source for answering the essay prompt?

Step 4. Use at least 2 of the 4 primary sources to answer the essay prompt, forming an argumentative thesis.
Support your thesis by crafting a 600–750-word (approximately 2.5-3 pages, double spaced) essay following the guidelines below:

  • Your essay should develop an argumentative thesis statement that answers all parts of the essay prompt. Your thesis needs to be featured in a clear introductory paragraph.
  • After the introduction, each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that connects to the thesis. These body paragraphs must use evidence to support the larger claim with quotations and/or paraphrasing from the sources.
  • In each body paragraph, you should choose specific examples and quotations from at least two of the assigned primary sources and connect them to your thesis through analysis.
  • Your essay should conclude with a summary paragraph that demonstrates a deeper understanding of how we, as historians, understand the topic of the paper.
  • Throughout the essay, sentences should be clear, logically organized, and efficient.
    Quotes and evidence need to be smoothly integrated into sentences and paragraphs, and both your spelling and grammar must be correct.
  • *Note: your paper should not be simply a list of answers to individual questions.
    Instead, students must craft a coherent, well-organized essay with an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.

Step 5. Revise your essay.
After you have drafted your essay, revise it following the suggestions below:

  • After you’ve completed your first draft, proofread out loud. The best argument can be undermined by poor writing—weak topic sentences, poor paragraph structure, awkward phrasing, excessive quotations, a feeble vocabulary, or typos. Writing with clarity is hard, and requires time, patience, and repetition. Consider visiting the OU Writing Center for help.
  • As you revise, review the instructions carefully. Have you completed all the steps? Does your essay fulfill the requirements of the assignment?
  • Use the Rubric (page 3) to evaluate your own work.

Step 6. Submit your essay. You should submit your essay following the

Formatting Requirements and Deadlines below:

  • It should be between 600 and 750 words long and include a word count at the end.
  • It should be double-spaced and formatted in Times New Roman 12 pt. font with 1-inch margins and should be submitted as a .doc or .docx file.
  • It must include footnotes formatted according to the Chicago Manual of Style. I have provided the Chicago Style citations format for each primary source, as well as your American Yawp textbook, and lecture at the very end of these guidelines. For more context about Chicago Style, see the HIST-1493 Writing Guide posted on Canvas, on this Primary Source Analysis assignment page.
  • Your work is expected to be your own. Please note that collaboration between students on the assignment is considered inappropriate and plagiarism of any sort will be reported to the Office of Academic Integrity.

Historical Analysis Grading Rubric

We will assign each paper a letter grade based on five elements of your paper: 1) Thesis; 2) Structure; 3) Quality of Analysis and Evidence; 4) Style; and 5) Format. Below is a description of papers in each letter grade (A-F). Some papers may display characteristics in multiple grade categories and will be assigned a grade accordingly. For example, a paper with an “A” quality thesis but with all other qualities of a “B” paper will receive a high “B.”

Excellent (A: 90-100)—The paper is organized, clear, precise, well-argued and well-supported. The paper is framed as an answer to the essay prompt. The thesis makes a clear statement about the similarity, difference, or relationship among at least two of the primary sources. Analysis of the documents involves insights that go beyond basic facts. The student is also creative and integrates quotations effectively. The conclusion demonstrates a deeper understanding of how we, as historians, understand the topic of the paper. Paper is well organized with clear topic sentences. The paper contains minimal writing errors and uses citations well. Paper is formatted correctly, and word count is within the assigned range.

Good (B: 80-89)—The paper is organized, coherent, technically sound, but provides little additional insight. It contains a thesis, but that thesis may have a weakness or fail to explicitly address the similarity, difference, or relationship among the primary sources. The student provides evidence but could have done a better job connecting evidence to the thesis. Perhaps the student could have done a better job addressing the essay prompt or explaining what these documents can tell us about the historical topic. The student uses topic sentences inconsistently. Paper also includes some writing, grammatical, or citation errors. Paper is formatted correctly but word count may be slightly under or over the assigned range.

Fair (C: 70-79)—The paper reflects a basic understanding of the subject, but it lacks a clearly stated thesis. Although the paper summarizes the documents, it fails to incorporate specific examples, which makes the paper read more like a simple review of the documents rather than a critical analysis of them. The paper does not adequately address the essay prompt in any depth. The student might have integrated quotations in parts of the paper but not in others. The paper may include several common writing/grammatical mistakes. Paper does not follow all formatting requirements and the word count may be significantly under or over the assigned range.

Poor (D: 60-69)—The paper displays some relevant material, but it is generally characterized by weak organization, a vague or absent thesis, numerous writing/factual errors, or general confusion. Although the paper discusses the documents in vague or non-specific ways, it lacks sufficient evidence. The paper may also include numerous writing or grammatical mistakes and

display poor use of citations. Paper does not follow formatting requirements and is substantially under the minimum word count.

Unsatisfactory (F: 0 – 59)—The paper displays little to no engagement with the subject and is in many ways incomplete. The student displays little interaction with the primary sources and provides a poor argument (or none whatsoever). The paper may include factual errors or value judgments/opinions, further revealing limited interaction with the primary sources. The paper may include numerous writing/grammatical mistakes. Paper does not follow formatting requirements and student fails to include proper citations.

No Credit (0)—Any paper that contains plagiarized material will receive a 0 and will be reported to the Office of Academic Integrity.


“Excerpts from The Black Codes of Mississippi” (1865)

Cite as: “Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, held in Jackson, October, November and December, 1865.”

“Jourdan Anderson to his old master” (1865)

Cite as: “Jourdan Anderson to P.H. Anderson, Aug. 7, 1865,” reprinted in Lydia Maria Child, The Freedmen’s Book (Boston: Tickenor and Fields, 1865), 265–67.

Frederick Douglass, “What the Black Man Wants” (1865)

Cite as: Frederick Douglass, “What the Black Man Wants,” (Boston: Geo. C Rand & Avery, 1865).

Testimony on the Ku Klux Klan in Congressional Hearing (1872)

Cite as: Testimony of Harriet Postle, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Report 41, pt. 5 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1951-1952.

Or: Testimony of Thomas L. Berry, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Report 41, pt. 5 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1945-1946.

Browning HIST-1493 – Fall 2023

Or: Testimony of Lawson B. Davis, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Report 41, pt. 5 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1943-1944.

Your American Yawp Textbook’s chapter on Reconstruction

Cite as: Christopher Abernathy et al., “Reconstruction,” Nicole Turner, ed., in The American Yawp, eds. Joseph Locke and Ben Wright (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).


Cite as: Browning Lecture, “Reconstruction: The Unfinished Revolution, 1865-1877, Part I,” HIST-1493, Week 2.

(This is one example. Please use the title and week of whichever lecture you cite.)

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