What, in your opinion, is the most important driving force behind historical change (such as economics, politics, religion, ideologies, the environment, great individuals, etc.) throughout the course of the history of the Americas up to the era of independence? Support your answer with examples from, at minimum, English and Spanish colonial history.
This is a deliberately open-ended essay prompt, with many ways to answer it. However, this is not an invitation to simply list and describe several unrelated phenomenon in the hope that something sticks. History writing is persuasive writing–a good paper will have a focused thesis. While the whole spectrum of historical causes—politics, the environment, economics, etc.—are all certainly important, your task is to make a case for what you think is the most important one in influencing change throughout the history of the Americas.
Needless to say, please only provide evidence that is directly relevant to this course’s subject material. If you’re going to write an essay stressing the importance of individual decision-making in affecting events (aka the “Great Man” thesis of history), don’t write about how Jesus founded Christianity. The Conquistadors may have fought in the name of Christianity, but that doesn’t make Jesus directly relevant to this class. A conquistador like Hernán Cortés, however, would. Use common sense when selecting your evidence.
A Good History Paper Must…
- Answer the prompt – Make sure you understand and address the entire question.
- Include a THESIS – What are you trying to prove? That is your argument, or thesis.
- Use evidence – A persuasive argument must be backed up by facts.
- Be original – Do your own work. Plagiarism will not be tolerated.
- Demonstrate good organization – Your ideas must be presented in a logical order.
- Follow proper writing guidelines – Your essay must be legible and professional.
1. Answer the Prompt
Read your prompt carefully, and make sure you understand what you are supposed to write about. If a prompt asks for the three most important causes of World War One, don’t give only two causes, or write about World War Two. Papers that answer the prompt incompletely will be marked down, and off-topic papers will not receive any credit. If you have any questions about an essay prompt, ask your instructor for clarification.
2. Include a Thesis
Your thesis is a clearly stated argument that you will prove over the course of the essay, and typically consists of one or two sentences at the end of your introductory paragraph. This is the single most important part of your essay. Without an argument, your paper is only a summary of facts that doesn’t explain anything, and the highest grade it can receive is a “C.”
Does your paper have a thesis? You can always ask your instructor for help in crafting one. You can also check your paper for a thesis yourself by asking whether someone could disagree with your essay’s answer to a historical question. Consider these sample responses to the prompt, “What were the most significant factors behind the Nazi seizure of power in Germany?”
After the Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, and years of political gridlock, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933.
This is not a thesis. It is impossible to offer a counterargument because it is not an opinion, but a statement of objective facts. Compare this to the next example:
Nazism’s success owed more to factors beyond the Party’s control than to its own inherent qualities.
This is an incomplete thesis. It states an opinion that is open to debate (someone else could argue that Nazi propaganda was decisive, or that prejudices in German culture caused Nazism’s triumph), but there are no facts to make this argument persuasive. A proper thesis statement needs to include some briefsupporting details to indicate how the paper will prove its argument. Observe the following:
Nazism’s success owed more to factors beyond the Party’s control than to its own inherent qualities. The humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, hardships of the Great Depression, and gridlock in German politics created a perfect storm of voter frustration that carried Hitler to the chancellorship on January 30th, 1933.
This is a complete thesis. It meshes the opinion in the second example with the facts from the first example, to present a clear argument and three key pieces of evidence that will be used to prove that argument. It also creates an outline for the rest of the essay, which will assign one section each to the Versailles Treaty, the Great Depression, and German politics, in that order. Note that this sample thesis statement does not explain its three supporting points in any detail, as it is only an introduction–the rest of the paper will explore those topics in depth.
3. Use Evidence
Since your thesis is something you are trying to prove, you must back it up with evidence for it to be persuasive. Vague generalities won’t help your case—use concrete examples.
There are two main sources of evidence. Primary sources are original documents and artifacts from the time of your subject matter, and can include anything from personal letters, government decrees, to pieces of artwork. This kind of evidence offers the strongest support for your essay. Secondary sources are works written by later historians after the events of your subject matter, such as your textbook readings. Note that some secondary sources may contain primary sources within them, if they provide excerpts of historical works.
Your sources must be trustworthy, and only trustworthy sources will receive credit as evidence in your paper. Class readings are a natural first option for essay information–it helps to take good notes! Further, history books are reliable resources and are readily available at any library.
The world wide web can also provide sources, but a word of caution: most information on the internet is unchecked, and is not considered trustworthy! University and government websites with addresses ending in “.edu” or “.gov,” respectively, are safe to use. Most web addresses ending in “.com,” “.org,” or “.net” are not considered trustworthy and must be avoided. The exceptions to this are websites for libraries (e.g., lapl.org) and online archives (e.g., jstor.org). Consult with a librarian or your instructor if you have any questions about the trustworthiness of your sources.
4. Be Original
All papers must be your own work. Passing off anything that is not your own work as your own is plagiarism. Having another person write an essay for you is plagiarism. Collaborating with a friend to write two identical papers is plagiarism. Copying passages from another work is plagiarism. Any form of plagiarism will result in a grade of ZERO.
Additionally, not acknowledging the sources of your information is also considered plagiarism; you are, in essence, claiming that information as your own findings. Whenever you quote or paraphrase information from your sources, you must give credit by citing them. This is your academic receipt of the evidence you have used, placed at the end of the sentence in parentheses or as a footnote. Long papers require a bibliography or works cited section of all sources used in the paper.
There are many citation styles, such as Chicago, MLA, Turabian, and parenthetical; it does not matter which citation method you choose, so long as you use it consistently. Repeated citations of the same source should be abbreviated after the first example.
5. Demonstrate Good Organization
Organize your thoughts in a logical sequence, with separate paragraphs for each main point. A paper that is one big uninterrupted mass of text muddies its argument and is difficult to read. Make it easy for the person grading your paper to understand what you are saying!
A history essay must contain these three essential parts:
An introduction – Tell your reader the purpose of your essay. Present your topic and some brief background information, and finish with the thesis you intend to prove. Don’t make your introduction too long in a short paper, as you need to move on to your analysis.
Body paragraphs – This is the core of your essay, where you analyze the facts to support your thesis. Make sure your body paragraphs group related pieces of evidence together in a logical manner. Every body paragraph must begin with a topic sentence, a mini-argument that explains how the paragraph’s evidence supports the essay’s main thesis. For an example of a topic sentence, see the following example:
Stalemates in German politics after the Great Depression made the Nazi Party an attractive alternative to a “do nothing” status-quo. A surfeit of political parties, combined with proportional representation, made it difficult for any party to obtain a parliamentary majority…
The highlighted topic sentence establishes the context for the evidence to follow. Without that topic sentence, this paragraph blindly lists facts without connecting them to the essay’s “big idea.”
A conclusion – Wrap up all of your findings and explain how they prove your thesis. This is a good place to refute possible counterarguments to your paper’s opinion.
To visualize the structure of your paper, imagine you are building a bridge (your essay) over a river (your historical question). First, your bridge needs a firm foundation (argument) on either side of the river–these are your introduction and conclusion paragraphs, which anchor your paper’s thesis at both ends. Next, your bridge needs pillars (evidence) in the river to support your roadway–these are your body paragraphs, which group related evidence together. Finally, you are ready lay down your roadway (topic sentences)–these go on top of each pillar of evidence, and connect them to your main argument in your introduction and conclusion.
Your essay would thus look something like the outline below:
Brief historical context/issue
Thesis proposing answer to issue
Points A, B, C supporting thesis
Body Paragraph A
Topic sentence linking point A to thesis
Supporting evidence A.1
Supporting evidence A.2
Supporting evidence A.3
Body Paragraph B
Topic sentence linking point B to thesis
Supporting evidence B.1
Supporting evidence B.2
Supporting evidence B.3
Body Paragraph C
Topic sentence linking point C to thesis
Supporting evidence C.1
Supporting evidence C.2
Supporting evidence C.3
Refutation of potential counter-arguments (optional, but recommended)
Recap of points A, B, C
Confirmation of thesis from above
6. Follow Proper Writing Guidelines
Polish your writing so your argument comes across clearly and authoritatively. Show your reader you can write effectively by following these rules:
- Do not overuse quotations. Direct quotations should be used sparingly, like seasoning, for emphasis. All other sources should be paraphrased.
- Keep summaries of historical events to a minimum; your paper needs to focus on analyzing evidence to prove your thesis.
- Get to the point, and stay on point. Personal reflections, moralizing about how horrible X was in history, and other distractions are just that—distractions from your argument and analysis of the evidence.
- Do not use the first person (“I” or “we”) or second person (“you”) in academic writing. Your paper already expresses your opinion on the subject, so it is not necessary to say, “I believe…”
- Always use the past tense when writing about the past.
- Correct all spelling and grammar errors, and avoid clichés and slang.
These pointers are not graded requirements, but are highly recommended.
- Start working on your paper early. Give yourself enough time to do a good job, and to avoid any last-minute emergencies.
- Write an outline to organize your paper’s arguments and evidence, before you start writing.
- Have a friend or your instructor proofread your paper. You can always visit my office hours or send me a draft via personal message.
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