Primary Sources for Teachers

This page has links to primary source document collections I have compiled for my different courses. I have designed them to be as user friendly as I can with brief introductions that put the documents in context and targeted questions get to the heart of significant historical issues. If you are a college or high school teacher, feel free to borrow what you need. Education shouldn’t be a competitive endeavor. We are all in this together for the greater good of cultivating a public that has good critical thinking skills in terms of what they read and how they write. So, take what you desire and modify it how you want. If you have great success or difficulties with a collection, let me know. I’m always happy to hear about what works or how I can improve what doesn’t.

It’s surprisingly hard to find good document collections that lend themselves to in-depth analysis by students. I have found that most textbook readers and teacher resources created by major publishers tend to either give too little for students to work with (short paragraphs to analyze) or else cover so many different topics that students miss the richness and nuance of any given one. These kinds of collections tend to produce more descriptive responses from students (where they describe what happened in the documents) rather than analytical ones. It’s much harder to find document collections that lend themselves to more involved analysis.

These collections are my attempt to fill that gap. I put together each of these collections with the goal of students writing short analytical essays that address important historical questions. The documents in each collection are targeted around a specific “big picture” question. I have found that more descriptive document assignments that have students identify the who, what, where level or questions tend to bore students because they don’t see why the answers matter. I have found that focusing on big questions enhances engagement because it helps students answer the “so what?” question. I have tried to assemble college-level, reader friendly, classroom-tested documents, many of which would also work with high school or middle school students. When possible I use documents that offer different perspectives so that students can understand the contingent nature of history and, especially, the relationship between primary sources and historical interpretation. This also gives students some appreciation of the challenges that historians face in balancing conflicting sources and deciphering bias as well as the importance of historical context in shaping how historians understand and give meaning to what they read in documents. I ask students to answer those “big picture” historical questions using only the documents as evidence to prove their points. I tell them to think of each paragraph in the essay as a different point in a larger argument. So, if they are using documents to assess the causes and effects of King Philip’s War, I want each paragraph to develop one specific cause or effect and then use examples and quotes from the documents to prove their ideas. I have found this kind of assignment, which repeats throughout the semester so students can learn from their prior efforts, to be the most effective way to promote good critical thinking and writing while, at the same time, giving students a taste of what historians do. This isn’t flashy; it is fairly traditional pedagogy. But I have found it to be the most effective way to give students the critical reading and writing skills they desperately need and, at the same time, provide some exposure to the historian’s craft. If you have alternate questions and assignments using these documents that work with your students, I’d love to hear about them. Email: bouton[at]

Primary Source Document Collections (arranged by time period)

Colonial British North America

Iroquois Constitution

The Causes and Effects of King Philip’s War, 16751676

Was Early America “The Best Poor Man’s Country” for White Immigrants?

Power in Colonial America

William Byrd’s Diary: Gender, Race, Class and Power in Early America

The American Revolution

Causes of the American Revolution

Rough Music: Political Violence and the American Revolution

How Democratic was the “Spirit of 1776”?

The Internal Revolution

How Democratic were the 1776 State Constitutions?

A Revolution for Whom?: Petitions from Ordinary Americans in the Early Republic

How Democratic was the Constitutional Convention? (1787)

The Bill of Rights in Context

Ordinary White Men Assess the Ending of the American Revolution

Women and the Politics of Petitioning in Virginia, 1776-1800

Workers and Early Industrialization

What Were the Cost of Early Industrialization for American Workers?

Slavery and Abolitionism

Walker’s Appeal (Excerpts) (1829)

William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator

Proslavery Propaganda

Why did the Southern States Secede?

Atlantic Revolutions

How Revolutionary Was the French Revolution?