History Critical Essay Assignment

History 2001: Critical Essay Assignment

Critical essay: due Wednesday, April 7. Please post your paper electronically on the assignment page on Carmen. Papers must be typed doubled-spaced.

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You are to write a 4-to-6-page critical essay on one or more documents or artifacts (diaries, autobiographies, paintings, sermons, speeches, etc.).The documents and artifacts must be drawn from our required reading or from the recommended materials on Carmen, unless you receive permission in advance from your Graduate Teaching Associate or Mr. Roth. The purpose is to be certain that you have a good document or set of documents to work with. I have posted two model critical essays on the first module on Carmen, in case you would like to look at a successful critical essay.
The purpose of the essay is to understand the values, beliefs, experiences, and feelings of people unlike ourselves. Why do they think and behave as they do? (See “Criticism” on Carmen for a description of a critical paper.) You may focus on a single document or artifact, but you may also focus on change and continuity between people of different centuries, or on differences and similarities among contemporaries.
You should ask a bold question in your essay that will compel you to come to grips with the differences between you and your subjects and that will force you to explain how and why your subject differs from contemporary Americans. Be sure to state that question in your title and in your first paragraph and to offer a provisional answer to that question (a thesis statement) at the end of your first paragraph. Whatever you do, please do not title your paper “First Paper” or “Critical Essay.” Professor Roth gets very dispirited when you do things like that. Remember, a good title focuses your thoughts and forces you to state your question clearly.
HINT: It is a good idea to place your thesis question and answer at the end of the introductory paragraph. You should use the opening of the introductory paragraph to capture the reader’s interest and to set the stage for your thesis question. For example, if your paper studies William Symonds’s sermon and asks “Can English Christians kill Indians?” you should begin your first paragraph by telling the reader who Symonds was, where and under what circumstances he preached, and what he said that was shocking. You will then be in a good position to ask your thesis question and state your answer.
It is also a good idea to give a two- or three-part answer to your thesis question. For example, you might say that Symonds believed English Christians could kill for two reasons: first, because he believed that the English were God’s chosen people, who had inherited ancient Israel’s covenant with God; second, because the Native Americans had no claim to the New World; and third, because English pacifists (the Anabaptists, humanists, Catholics, et al.) were not true Christians. You could then organize your paper into three sections or paragraphs that take up in turn the three parts of your answer to the thesis question. Such organization would help you and the reader follow your argument.
Your papers will be graded according to: (1) the content and aptness of your ideas, and (2) the quality and accuracy of your prose. Papers are to be typed, double-spaced, and written in clear, correct prose. There should be no spelling errors. When you use the ideas of others, you must so indicate in a footnote or by some other method acceptable to the course instructor. If one borrows the ideas or words of others without acknowledgment, one is guilty of plagiarism. More details on this assignment will be provided in class. WE MAY DEDUCT ONE-THIRD OF A GRADE FROM YOUR PAPER IF IT IS LATE.

CAUTION: You must support your argument with quotes from primary sources and/or with detailed references to specific paintings or artifacts. Formal bibliographies are not necessary, but you must cite your sources and give page references. Please limit your comments on contemporary problems and events to no more than a paragraph. PAPERS THAT DO NOT FULFILL THE TERMS OF THE ASSIGNMENT WILL RECEIVE A GRADE OF “E” ON THE ASSIGNMENT.
Sample essay topics and critical questions

You may write your paper on of these suggested topics or questions, but you may write on other questions or topics if you wish. The only requirement is that you work with documents or artifacts in our required or recommended reading. If you wish to work with documents not included in our required or recommended reading, you must receive approval from your Graduate Teaching Associate and Mr. Roth.


1) Anne Bradstreet’s poems. Sample title: Did Anne Bradstreet love her family too much?

2) William Byrd’s diary. Sample title: Could William Byrd say his prayers with a straight face?

3) Samuel Sewall’s diary, Elizabeth Ashbridge’s narrative, and Abigail Adams’s letters. Sample title: Did early American women know their place?

4) The poems of Anne Bradstreet, the narrative of Elizabeth Ashbridge, the letters of Abigail Adams, the essay of Catherine Beecher, the letters of Sarah Grimké, the stories of Fanny Fern and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the diary of Mary Chestnut, and other documents on women. Sample titles: Were American women feminists? Did the Revolution radicalize American women? Was “influence” just another word for power? Did American women share the values of American men?

5) The writings of Fanny Fern, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Chestnut, and other documents on spiritual and moral obligation. Sample title: Were Americans Christians? Was America a Christian republic?

Young People

1) New England Primer, William Byrd’s diary, Catherine Sedgwick’s Home, McGuffey’s Reader, Francis Wayland’s account of disciplining his child, Charles Siringo’s Texas Cowboy, and Harriet Robinson’s Autobiography. Sample title: Did Puritans love their children more than non-Puritans did? Did citizens of the early republic love their children more than colonists did?

2) Charles Siringo’s Texas Cowboy, Harriet Robinson’s Autobiography, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, and Sarah Fitzpatrick’s interview. Sample titles: Did working children raise themselves? Did working children make good citizens?

Relations between Europeans and Native Americans

1) William Symond’s sermon, speeches by James Monroe and Andrew Jackson (in “The Problem of the Aborigines,” recommended reading). Sample titles: Can a good Christian kill? Do Symonds and Jackson covet their neighbors’ property?

2) Missionaries. Sample titles: Did Catholics understand Native Americans better than Protestants did?


1) The narratives of Frederick Douglass, Ella Shepherd, and Sarah Fitzpatrick, and other documents on slavery. Sample titles: Did Fitzpatrick speak strangely? Did she have anything to be happy about? Did Douglass have any friends? Were slaves mistreated? Ungrateful? Did African-Americans practice the same religion as other Americans? Did African-Americans reject republican values?

2) The writings of Thomas Dew, George Fitzhugh, Sarah Grimké, Hinton Helper, William Harper, Mary Chestnut, and other documents from the South. Sample titles: Were white Southerners alike? How is it possible that Grimké and Chestnut both came from South Carolina? Did Southerners support slavery? Were Southerners Christians and republicans?

The key to understanding these documents and artifacts lies in comprehending the moral, religious, and political beliefs of early Americans and the ways in which those beliefs shaped or failed to shape the values, beliefs, and actions of the early Americans. Please do not forget to ask a bold question in your essay, to state that question in your title and in your first paragraph, and to answer that question fully at the end of your first paragraph.


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