Assignment: Write a short history of slavery, using the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent) as primary source documents.

Primary Sources: This critical questions exercise is designed to give you additional practice working with primary source documents while helping you learn more about one of the most important social institutions in American history before 1865: slavery.

For this exercise, you will be examining a single type of primary source: autobiographies.

You will again need to evaluate critically the strengths and weaknesses of your primary source. Autobiographies pose some special issues for historians. To what extent does the author's desire to be seen favorably by other people influence the telling of his or her own life story? Does the author leave out events or motives which might cause him or her to be seen in an unfavorable light? Is the author's discussion of events too limited by his or her own perspective to be accurate? In talking about issues related to the author's childhood, is the author's understanding of an event limited to that of a child. Or, is the author relating stories about himself or herself that they do not remember but someone else has told them about it. Did the events happen so long ago that the author's memory may be faulty? Or, are the events so recent that the testimony is colored by the emotions of the moment? Why did the author write the autobiography? Does the motive for telling his or her story to other people color what is told?

Secondary Sources: You will want to read Tindall and Shi, America: A Narrative History, 602-643, for background on slavery. However, the point of this exercise is to learn how to use primary sources. I am, therefore, placing some restrictions on your use of secondary sources. You must draw your paper only from the Classic Slave Narratives book.

Thesis Statement: Organize your paper around a thesis statement, an argumentative statement you are trying to prove with evidence from primary sources. Somewhere near the beginning of your paper (the first paragraph is usually a good spot), your paper should include a statement which says something like this: "This paper argues that. . . ." Your job in the paper is to present evidence and argument which will prove that your thesis is correct.

Narrowing and Focusing the Topic: Remember, a good history of an event will answer these questions: (1) What happened in the event, when did it happen, and who was involved in the event? (2) What caused the event to happen? (3) What were the consequences of the event?

There are many different ways you can focus this paper on narrow issue. You could write about the lives of slaves. What was it like to be a slave? What conditions did they experience? What was their work like? What were their thoughts and attitudes toward their enslavement? You could write about slaveholders in the same way. You could even write about the nonslaveholders who are portrayed in the book. You could write about race relations in the antebellum South. You could write about the experience of being a fugitive slave. What prompted people to escape? What are the characteristics of people who tried to escape? You could write about what it was like to be a woman in slavery, or a man. You could write about the differences in the lives of men and women slaves. You could write about the relationship between women, white and black, in the South. You could write about slavery as an institution. How did it work? What were its strengths and weaknesses as a system?

In writing your paper, you may focus on one of these events or survey the whole subject of slavery, as long as you can organize your paper around a thesis statement you are trying to prove with evidence.

Footnotes: Use traditional footnotes (not parenthetical references). Your footnotes may be located either at the bottom of the page or at the end of the paper. If you use a word processor such as Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, putting footnotes at the bottom of the page is very easy. Use the pull-down menus on the menu bar to look for the word: "footnote." Click on that word and your software should guide you through the process with relative ease. (In Microsoft products such as MS Word and MS Works, you can usually find footnotes by clicking on "Insert" on the menu bar and then "Footnote."

For this paper, use traditional footnotes, citing your source by the author, title, and page number printed on the page. For instance, if your first notes was a citation to page 270, your first note would look like this:

      1Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., The Classic Slave Narratives (New York: New American Library, 1987), 270.

Footnotes which refer a second time to a book or article do not need to repeat all the information about the work (that would be a waste of space). Scholars usually therefore use a Latin abbreviation, Ibid. (meaning "in the same place"), when a note references the same book or article as the preceding footnote. Since all of your notes will refer to the book by Gates, all of your notes except the first one should use Ibid. Your second footnote, for instance, would look this way if you were citing page 283 of the Gates book.

      2Ibid., 283.

If you put your footnotes at the bottom of the page, be sure to separate them from the main text with a line (hit the underline key 20 times).

Length of the Paper: Your paper should be five or fewer pages long (not including footnotes).

Due Date: Your paper is due December 5.

HIS 223: Introduction to American History, 1492-1877

HIS 223: Introduction to American History, 1877-Present

This page was last updated on 9/8/99
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Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
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