First Inaugural Address of Ronald Regan
When you analyze a primary source, you are undertaking the most important job of the historian.
There is no better way to understand events in the past than by examining the sourceswhether
journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or
autobiographiesthat people from that period left behind. For this course, students will
complete one primary source analysis, which examines the historical setting, author and bias,
intent of the source, reception of the source, and its relevance to the study of United States
history of a selected source. The analysis should be 2-3 pages double spaced in length and follow
standard paper formatting (Times New Roman 12 pt. font, 1 inch margins).
It is important to remember that each historian, including you, will approach a source with a
different set of experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently.
Remember that there is no one right interpretation. However, if you do not do a careful and
thorough job, you might arrive at a wrong interpretation. In order to analyze a primary source
you need information about two things: the document itself, and the era from which it comes.
You can base your information about the time period on the readings you do in class and on
lectures. Any other sources of information must be cited. On your own you need to think about
the document itself. To help you in this, think about the following question for each theme.
Your examination of the historical setting should examine the context in which the document is
produced. What is going on in history during this time period? How does the historical setting
affect the document or situate it within American history? In terms of author and bias, ask
yourself, what do I know about the authorrace, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region,
political beliefs, etc.? How do these things affect the source? Does the author have an inherent
bias that affects his/her perspective on the topic? NOTE: The author of the source is always a
historical person, and not Jermi Suri or the editor/author of The American Yawp Reader
that has compiled the sources.
Next, think about the authors intent in writing the document. Look at the purpose of the source.
What was the author’s message or argument? What was he/she trying to get across? Is the
message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well? Also, how does the author try to get the
message across? What methods does he/she use? Who constituted the intended audience? Was
this source meant for one person’s eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?
From there, I want you to look at how the source was received. How did people respond to it? Is
it prescriptive (telling you what people thought should happen) or descriptive (telling you what
people thought did happen)? Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?
Finally, address the relevance of this source to United States History. What historical questions
can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source? What
questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?