ESSAYS IN HISTORY What is the purpose of an essay? An essay is an extended argument in support of a thesis. Essays in history classes are assigned to provide you an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of the primary and secondary source literature on a particular topic and to assess your writing proficiency and your analytical skills. What is a thesis? Consider your thesis as a proposition that you are going to prove, and imagine that your essay contains paragraphs that are building blocks in your argument. Be sure to begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion. Do not merely assert that such and such a problem or issue is important. Instead, make an explicit assertion about the nature of the subject and indicate how you will approach the subject. Your thesis should be suited to the goal of your essay, the amount of time you have to research the subject and write the essay, and the word/page limits of the project. How should facts and concepts be used in a history essay? Begin your essay with a statement of purpose and an explicit thesis statement. Stick to the point and do not fill up your essay with information and evidence that while factually correct does not carry forward your thesis. Keep in mind that history is the study of human behavior in the past. Historical analysis essays require an appreciation of concepts such as culture, class, race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as a chronological recounting of names, dates, battles, congressional laws, presidential executive orders, and Supreme Court decisions. In the case of historiography essays, your primary sources will be the books and articles written by historians and perhaps secondary sources regarding the various contexts in which historians worked. Such specific factual information is absolutely indispensable, but it comprises only the building blocks out of which you, the historian, construct history. Factual material - historical evidence - must be used in connection with a thematic design (a thesis to be developed) and your evidence must be used effectively (to support and fill out an argument or thesis) in order for your essay to be successful. Can you give me an example of how this approach might be used? Sure, let's say you want to write an essay about the impact of Reconstruction. You could construct a thesis such as "Reconstruction created many important changes and problems, as well as disappointments." While the statement is factually correct, it is also vacuous. A much better thesis would be "The story of Reconstruction contains a sobering realization of the difficulty of imposing social change by government policy in the United States. Reconstruction began with high expectations on the part of the Radical Republicans and freed slaves. However, political opposition from conservative members of congress,
President Johnson, the Supreme Court, and former supporters of the Confederacy in the South, along with lukewarm support for African American rights on the part of white Americans throughout the nation, severely limited the opportunities for significant improvements in the lives of African Americans." Notice that the thesis contains several substantive propositions that would then be argued in the body of the essay, with appropriate evidence provided in support of each proposition.