Primary Sources for History

Primary sources provide the foundation for historians’ reconstructions of the past. To use primary sources with confidence, historians need to be alert to potential causes of bias, distortion, and inaccuracy in the documents. This assignment will give you practice in ways to identify such causes by comparing and contrasting two different perspectives on servitude in early eighteenth-century Virginia.

Address the following sets of questions in 600–750 words (approximately 2.5 – 3 pages).

  1. Who wrote each document, and for whom was it written? What does this suggest about the point of view reflected in each document?
  2. Why was each document written, and what form does it have? A document’s purpose and form (e.g. legal testimony, letters, newspapers) will affect the sorts of material it contains and might help you consider the systemic power dynamics at play.
  3. How do author, audience, purpose, and form relate to the event that the document describes? Was the author in a position to have reliable knowledge of the event or phenomenon? Does the form of the document permit accurate reporting? Does the author have any reason to avoid telling the truth as he or she saw it?
  4. What is the tone and message of each account? What do you think accounts for differences between them?
  5. Synthesize: How do the viewpoints of these two individuals shape their understanding of servitude and its role in society? Considering these two sources alongside one another, how should we, as historians, understand servitude and its legacy in eighteenth century Virginia?

All these questions are interrelated; your paper should not be a simply a list of answers to individual questions, but a coherent essay with an introduction and conclusion.

Requirements and Deadlines

• It should be between 600 and 750 words long and include a word count at the end.
• It must include footnotes formatted according to the Chicago Manual of Style. See the Citation Guide under “Course Documents” on Canvas.

Writing and Organizing the Essay

• Your essay should develop a claim about the similarity, difference, or relationship between the two documents. That claim is your thesis, and it needs to be featured in a clear introductory paragraph.
• After the introduction, each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that connects to the thesis. These body paragraphs must use evidence to support the larger claim with quotations and/or paraphrasing from the sources.
• Your essay should conclude with a summary paragraph that demonstrates a deeper understanding of how we, as historians, understand servitude and its legacy in eighteenth century Virginia.
• Throughout the essay, sentences should be clear, logically organized, and efficient. Quotes and evidence need to be smoothly integrated into sentences and paragraphs, and both your spelling and grammar must be correct.
• Conversely, you do not need to use fancy vocabulary or convoluted jargon. Simpler is better.
• After you’ve completed your first draft, proofread out loud. The best argument can be undermined by poor writing—weak topic sentences, poor paragraph structure, awkward phrasing, excessive quotations, a feeble vocabulary, or typos. Writing with clarity is hard, and requires time, patience, and repetition.

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