Themes & Concepts in American Historical Documents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 explore themes and concepts in important American documents. We will examine several critical documents, and see how their core ideas reflect American ideals.

Core Themes in American Documents

'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...'

These famous words are found in the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. This phrase has come to represent a core American value: equality. Let's brainstorm for a moment: what other core American themes come to mind? Maybe you're thinking of some of the things mentioned in the U.S. Constitution like justice, liberty, or a government 'of the people, by the people, for the people.'

The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are the foundational documents of the American tradition, but there are other texts with great historical and cultural relevance. In this lesson, we will look at a few other influential documents from American history and analyze their importance.

Washington's Farewell Address

So, we all know that George Washington was America's first president. He served between 1789-97. He was a wise leader for the newly-formed American Republic. Before he left office, he penned an open letter to the American people. This document is commonly called Washington's Farewell Address. It was published in September 1796, shortly before his retirement to Mount Vernon.

George Washington published his farewell address in 1796, shortly before leaving office.

In his farewell address, Washington encouraged the American people to embrace unity and avoid divisions. He warned of sectionalism, which is a geographic division between the states. He was also concerned about the emergence of political parties. See, during this time, tremendous tension existed between America's first political parties; the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Washington warned that people should consider themselves Americans, not members of a particular political party.

Washington also warned of entangling alliances with European countries. He believed firmly that the U.S. should focus on its own affairs, and not become involved in European turmoil. Washington's Farewell Address set a precedent for the American policy of isolationism (which was not always perfectly followed). Washington expounded upon other topics also, but political parties, sectionalism, and entangling alliances are among the most important themes of his farewell address.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln visited the Battle of Gettysburg site and delivered one of the most famous speeches in history: the Gettysburg Address. This speech was given to commemorate the lives lost during the Battle of Gettysburg, and really in the Civil War as a whole. Most of us know at least the beginning of the Gettysburg Address. It begins:

'Four score and seven years ago...'

Lincoln went on to lament the Civil War, but explained that it was not being fought in vain. He referenced the American Revolution and the 'creation of a new nation' which had been established under the 'proposition that all men are created equal.' Again, we see this reference to equality. At the time the speech was given, many people considered it a poor speech. It was incredibly simple and short. But in time, the beauty and value of the speech came to be recognized. Today, the Gettysburg Address is one of the most recognizable texts in American history.

FDR's 'Four Freedoms' Speech

A year before the U.S. became involved in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech that has come to be known as the 'Four Freedoms' Speech. The 'Four Freedoms' Speech was given January 6, 1941 and was FDR's State of the Union Address. In the speech, FDR outlined four freedoms all American ought to have: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.

President Franklin D.Roosevelt outlined four specific freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union Address.

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