The Boisterous Sea of Liberty
3. Building Student Skills
Here is a panoramic look at early American history as captured in the words of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many other historical figures, both famous and obscure. In these pieces, the living voices of the past speak to us from opposing viewpoints--from the vantage point of loyalists as well as patriots, slaves as well as masters. The documents collected here provide a fuller understanding of such historical issues as Columbus's dealings with Native Americans, the Stamp Act Crisis, the Declaration of Independence, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Missouri Crisis, the Mexican War, and Harpers Ferry, to name but a few.
Compiled by Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz, and accompanied by extensive illustrations of original documents, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty brings the reader back in time, to meet the men and women who lived through the momentous events that shaped our nation.
Like a detective, a historian must reconstruct past events out of various pieces of evidence. Historians typically rely on written documents--letters, diaries, memoirs, newspapers, and government reports.
Some of this evidence is reliable; other pieces of evidence are less trustworthy, but valuable nonetheless. Still other pieces of evidence are misleading or even fraudulent. Evaluating the evidence and interpreting its meaning is one of the most difficult tasks a historian faces.
Generally, historians consider "primary sources" to be the most reliable source of historical documentation. A primary source is an observer's first-hand account of a historical event. Yet even primary sources raise difficult issues of assessment. It is important to know whether a document was written at the time an event took place or later; whether the document's author was involved in the event or was an "impartial" observer; and whether the author had ulterior motives for writing the document.
One of the basic skills that all students need to learn is how to interpret a historical document. After closely reading the document, the students must respond constructively and analytically to the ideas advanced in the text. It is useful for students to conceive of the process of interpreting a historical document in terms of a series of questions:
1. Who wrote the document? What assumptions guide the author's arguments?
2. When was the document composed? What other events occurred around the same time?
3. For what purposes was the document composed? What evidence does the document present to support its argument?
4. How reliable do you consider the document as a source of factual information?
5. What information does the document convey?
6. What is the document's historical significance?
7. How does this information compare with other sources, of greater or lesser reliability?