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Analyzing Important Documents in American History: Essay Prompts

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

History 103 gave you the chance to learn about the role of different important documents in American history. This lesson will help you analyze their creation, meaning, and legacy.


Now that you've completed the lessons in your course, use the exercises shown here to practice applying your new-found knowledge. This is not a mandatory part of your coursework, but is useful practice.

Creation of Key Documents

  • Analyze the major issues that were under consideration when the U.S. Constitution was written. What do you think influenced the way that the document was written most substantially? What historical events and issues do you see reflected in the creation of this important document?
  • When Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, who do you believe he was primarily addressing? How can you see the influence of his supposed audience in the way he created his famous speech? How might the speech have looked different with a different audience in mind?
  • What primarily motivated Thomas Paine to write Common Sense? How can you see this motivation in the text itself, and to what extent does it impact the precise way that Paine constructed and wrote this document?
  • What key concerns were the country's founders trying to ward off when they created the Bill of Rights? What, conversely, were they trying to create and ensure via this document? How can you see these influences in the way the document is crafted?

Adoption of Key Documents

  • Describe exactly who was involved in the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. Then, explain what it meant to adopt this particular document and how its adoption signified change from the way the country was structured prior to the articles' existence.
  • What was the process that went into the adoption of the Bill of Rights? What were some of the key challenges and obstacles that proponents had to face during this adoption? What historical lessons might we learn from the ways these obstacles were overcome at the time?
  • Describe the relationship between the reception of the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of the Civil War. Do you consider the Proclamation a harbinger of the war's end, or are the two less interconnected than that? Use evidence to support the argument you are making.

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