Document Analysis Essay HIST 2600 American History

Document Analysis Essay
HIST 2600 American History
York University — Fall 2020
Dr. Joseph Tohill

Your researched document analysis essay can be based any one or more of the documents from the documents assigned (from Voices of Freedom, vol. 1). Each student can choose which document(s) he or she wishes to write about.

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You must also use a minimum of three secondary sources to help you contextualize and analyze your document(s). You should try to find secondary sources that are as directly relevant to your document as possible. (Confused about what primary and secondary sources are? Look here.)

Document your sources using Chicago style footnotes. I’ve provided you with a short style guide in the “Guide to Writing a History Essay,” which is posted on Moodle. There’s also on online Chicago Quick Guide available here. (Use the Notes and Bibliography style.)

Your essay should be 1500 words (or 6 pages) in length and is Friday November 6.

Essays will be submitted and returned online via the link in Moodle. (See the the “Course Policies” section of the Course Outline for further details.)

Assignment Description:

This short essay requires you to be the historian. Document analysis is a key skill in historical interpretation. It is not a mere summary or description of the contents of a document (defined broadly as any type of historical source, including written documents, paintings, photographs, sound recordings, films, etc.). Instead, it is an analysis of the motivation, intent and purpose of a document within a particular historical context. The purpose of a document analysis paper is to allow students to learn, practice, and showcase their skills in original historical interpretation.

A good document analysis paper will focus on both the text itself (with attention to the specifics and nuances of language and/or imagery used) and the context (the broader picture of the history of that period that informed the document’s creation and reception). It is this dual approach that separates the methods of historians from those of other disciplines, such as literary criticism or other social sciences (e.g. sociology or political science).
In analyzing your primary source, you should concentrate on discovering both the meaning and the significance the source as a piece of historical evidence. In analyzing the meaning, you are trying to understand what the intention of the document was and how it might have been understood by the historical actors in that era. An analysis of the significance focuses on the source’s importance or impact within its historical context, what it illustrates about the time period in which it was produced, and how the evidence contributes to a particular interpretation of past.
Good historians are always making connections, or finding relationships between the historical evidence they discover and the existing scholarship on the topic concerned. In a similar fashion, you should draw upon secondary sources (i.e. articles and books written after the events in question, usually by non-participants, especially historians) to help you analyze the meaning as well as the larger context and significance of the document.
How to find research sources:

Begin by reading the relevant chapter(s) in Give Me Liberty for background information. (Note, however, that you cannot use GML or other general history textbooks as your secondary sources. General textbooks are not suitable research sources.)

Make sure that your secondary sources are authoritative and reliable. You’ll find the most reliable sources in the library’s catalogue of books and journal articles. Do not use general internet websites or encyclopedias to write your papers (esp. Wikipedia and other online encyclopedias).

There are also many excellent research guides and help available on the library’s website or in person at the library itself. Begin your research with the library’s excellent US History research guide, available here:

Still feel like you need some personal help? The library can help you with that, too! See

The best place to start looking for reliable, authoritative sources is the online database called America: History and Life, which is available through the library here. (If that link doesn’t get you there, type the name into the library search bar, or cut and paste the URL below into your browser). AHL is a database of abstracts (i.e. short summaries) of academic journal articles from hundreds of journals.

Search by keywords to find what you’re looking for, and then either click on the direct link to the PDF (if there is one) or the button that says “Find It @ York.” (Note: York does not have subscriptions to all of the journals in AHL, so not all the articles you find in AHL will be available.)

Another good database is JSTOR, though most JSTOR articles (or at least the post-1964 ones) are also indexed in AHL.

America: History and Life
America: History & Life is an index of literature covering the history and culture of the United States and Canada, from prehistory to the present. With indexing for 1,700 journals from 1964 to present, this database is an important bibliographic reference tool for students and scholars of U.S. and Canadian history.

JSTOR is a full text digital archive of core scholarly journals with complete back runs of many titles. As part of JSTOR’s agreement with publishers, current issues (usually the last 3 – 5 years) are not digitized by JSTOR and may be obtained elsewhere.

How to formulate your thesis:
Your essay should have a clear introduction that ends with your thesis (a succinct statement, preferably one sentence, of your overall argument); a well-organized body, including logically-placed supporting arguments/points and paragraphs with strong topic sentences; and a clear conclusion that briefly reviews the main arguments of the paper and restates the thesis. For more on essay writing, read the “Guide to Writing History Essays” Moodle. Everyone should read this guide before writing their essay.
You may be wondering, “how am I going to come up with a thesis about a document”? Easy. The most straightforward thesis would be a clear statement of your major conclusion(s) arising from your analysis of your document(s) in their proper historical context. What that context is, exactly, will depend on your particular topic and time period, who authored the document and why, etc. Doing a little research into such issues will help you discover the context. Research in secondary sources will also help you see how other historians have addressed the issues raised by your document(s) and perhaps even how they have treated your very document(s).
Keep in mind that a thesis is always a debatable statement about the topic rather than just a description of the facts. It is your interpretation of the facts (as you understand them). A thesis statement should always, therefore, be a statement with which others (based on the same facts, evidence and/or sources) might reasonably disagree.
Taking “The Trial of Anne Hutchinson” document (doc. 11 in Voices of Freedom, vol. 1) as an example, you might focus your research on Puritan religious beliefs and gender norms in order to help you understand what was so terrible (in the eyes of John Winthrop and the other magistrates) about what she did. Anne Hutchinson’s trial is such a famous one that you could probably find a lot of sources that discuss the trial specifically. If this is true, it would be a good idea to look for sources that express different points of view on the trial (rather than just describing it factually) in order to help you formulate your own. In the course of your research, you might discover, for example, how Hutchinson’s trial fits into the larger picture of Puritan trials and banishments in the early seventeenth century, as well as how Puritans viewed and dealt with women who transgressed community norms.
After doing your research and analyzing the source in light of this research, you might reach the following conclusion—and thus write the following thesis statement—“The transcript of Anne Hutchinson’s trial reveals that her transgressions against Puritan gender norms were as important in leading to her banishment as were her violations of Puritan religious doctrines.” This is an argument that it would be a little difficult to make based on the document alone. Getting to this point would require you to know something about how women were viewed and treated in Puritan society, what roles they could and could not play, etc. It is only by understanding sources in their context that historians can begin to make sense of the past.
I hope that gives you the general idea. Please let me know if you have any questions!
Good luck!

Examples of Questions to ask when analyzing a Primary Source:
(Note that your essay must not simply be an answer to this list of questions. It should be an essay, i.e. an extended analytical argument about the source.)

  1. What is the nature of the source?
    What type of source is it?
    Where and when was the source produced?
    Who was the author and what was his/her position?
    Does it provide information about experience, ideology, and/or behaviour?
    Is it prescriptive, i.e. does it tell people how to behave (e.g. sermons, guide books, etc.)?
    Or is it evidence of lived experience (e.g. oral history interviews, autobiographies, letters, diaries)?
    Does it tell you about ordinary people or elites?
  2. Who is/was the intended audience?
    Was the source produced for public consumption?
    Or was it originally intended to be private?
    How might this affect the presentation of the material and your understanding of it?
  3. What is the meaning of the source?
    What was the purpose of the source? Why was it created?
    What does a close reading of the source tell you about the author’s intentions?
    How does the source construct meaning through language, visual imagery, or music?
    What important metaphors and symbols does it use?
    Is the source accurate? Does it contain deliberate distortions or omissions?
    What silences are there in the source? What does the author leave out that is important?
  4. What is the historical significance of the source (is it significant?)?
    What larger questions can you address by using the source?
    What questions can’t be answered?
    What other sources could be used to supplement this one?
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