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Identifying Cause & Effect in Historical Documents

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the cause and effect surrounding important historical documents. We will examine the historical context surrounding these documents, learn why they were created, and analyze their role in history.

Cause and Effect and Historical Documents

Suppose you create a line of standing dominoes spaced close to one another, and you push the first one over. What happens? You know the answer, one domino falls upon another, and the whole line topples over. In physics, this is an example of cause and effect. The pushing of the first domino is the cause, and the remaining dominoes falling is the effect.

Cause and effect are not limited to physics. This principle plays a crucial role in the flow of history. If we think about it deeply, we realize that this is what history is: it is the story of how one event leads to another in space and time. We can reason that historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence didn't simply appear out of thin air. There was a reason for its creation; there was a 'cause' behind it. For every famous historical document, there is a historical context that led to its creation. Historical context is the historical environment or climate surrounding an event. In this lesson, we will examine the underlying historical context behind some foundational historical documents. Let's jump in!

The Magna Carta

In this lesson, we will examine relatively modern historical documents. We won't be looking at the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi, or other Greek and Roman texts (although they are important!). Let's begin in the year 1215.

Many students are required to learn about the Magna Carta, but what were the cause and effect conditions behind its creation? In case you may not know, the Magna Carta was a document signed by King John in 1215 granting certain legal rights to English barons. The Magna Carta is typically regarded as an important document because, to some degree, it limited the power of the king. The Magna Carta influenced generations of English thinkers and politicians; it even had a profound influence on America's 'Founding Fathers.' So what was the historical context behind it? Well, in a nutshell, a group of wealthy nobles (called barons) in Northeast England were displeased with King John's rule and banded together to resist his rule unless he agreed to certain terms. As influential members of society, they demanded to have a voice. So we see organized resistance, a distaste for authoritarianism, and the desire for personal liberties played a key role. Hmm... Interestingly enough, these same themes come to mind regarding the American Revolution, do they not?

The Magna Carta, signed in 1215 by King John.
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American Founding Documents

Most of us are probably relatively familiar with the historical context surrounding the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence was a document drafted by Thomas Jefferson, declaring that British-held colonies in North America were now an independent nation-state, free from British rule. It was ratified on July 4, 1776. The Declaration of Independence grew out of decades of colonial discontentment with British rule. Founding Father, John Adams stated that the American Revolution began way back in 1763, not simply in 1775 when the actual war broke out. British taxes and other intrusive policies led to colonial resistance, and ultimately, the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
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The U.S. Constitution is one of America's foundational documents, along with Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789 and provides the legal framework for the U.S. government. But the U.S. Constitution came into being because America's previous government under a constitutional document called the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, was weak and unable to adequately function. So if we think of historical events and documents as dominoes it would go something like this: British policies > the American Revolution > the Declaration of Independence > the Articles of Confederation > the U.S. Constitution. Each document was written in response to another document or historical event that preceded it.

The U.S. Constitution.
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