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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop Summarieslink-primary sources homelink-site map

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To explore America's story as it was first told, 12 high school and middle school American history teachers gathered for a week-long workshop that was captured on video. Together with prominent college professors, they investigated topics in American history through lecture and discussion, research and role-play. To prepare, they read primary sources—the original documents that transmit the voices of America's past—and viewed videos from the companion series A Biography of America. Each Primary Sources video consists of a lecture, group activities, and interviews with teachers and scholars. The programs are as follows:


Image of a Colonial Schooner

Workshop One —

The Virginia Company:
America's Corporate Beginnings


This workshop tells the story of America's corporate beginnings and explores Jamestown as a business operation. Using primary source documents, you can examine the Virginia Company's settlement in Jamestown as a case study in colonial economics and social dynamics, and debate why it failed and whether failure was avoidable.


Image of Colonial Soldiers on Horseback

Workshop Two —

Common Sense and the American Revolution:
The Power of the Printed Word


This workshop explores the power and importance of America's first "bestseller," Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Using the language of ordinary folk, Paine called for revolution and challenged many commonly held assumptions about government and the colonies' relationship to England. By looking at Common Sense, comparing it with the local declarations of independence, and then comparing it with the Declaration of Independence, you can explore the growing support for American independence in the 1770s.


Image of a woman working in a mill

Workshop Three —

The Lowell System:
Women in a New Industrial Society


In the earliest days of American industry, the Boston Manufacturing Company created an innovative, single-location manufacturing enterprise at Lowell, Massachusetts, that depended on the recruitment of women millworkers. Using primary source documents, you can examine the changing face of gender, class, and labor in the 1830s and 1840s through the lens of the Lowell System and determine if Lowell was a real opportunity for working women or a dead end.


Image of Lincoln

Workshop Four —

Concerning Emancipation:
Who Freed the Slaves?


This workshop examines the complex issues surrounding the end of slavery in the United States. It addresses President Lincoln's attitudes and actions before and during the Civil War and the role of the enslaved in attaining their own emancipation. Using primary source documents, you can deepen your understanding of the influences on Lincoln and the different forces at work that contributed to the end of slavery.


Image of a steam locomotive

Workshop Five —

Cans, Coal, and Corporations:
The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition


This workshop investigates the new American vision that resulted from the explosion of intrastate transportation and industrial technology in the second half of the 19th century. Drawing on essays written to celebrate the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, you can reflect on this new perspective, both cosmopolitan and expansionist, and its implications for the future.


Image of a census form

Workshop Six —

The Census:
Who We Think We Are


Beginning in 1790 and every 10 years since, American citizens have gotten a new view of who they are through the census mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Reformulated racial and ethnic categories reflect both policy priorities and changes in how we think about ourselves and how the government allocates resources. In this workshop, you can explore your identity through historic census forms and analyze recent data to formulate spending priorities for a sample community.


Image of a doctor looking at x-rays

Workshop Seven —

Disease and History:
Typhoid Mary and the Search for Perfect Control


With a particular emphasis on typhoid, diphtheria, and polio, this workshop looks at public health initiatives and their impact on American society. The case of Mary Mallon (a.k.a. "Typhoid Mary") exemplifies the conflict between public needs and individual rights during a public health crisis. Using primary source documents, you can consider whether Mary Mallon should be quarantined or set free.


Image of a tank and Korean children

Workshop Eight —

Korea and the Cold War:
A Case Study


With a specific focus on the Korean War, this workshop looks at the first use of military force under the Truman Doctrine and the first practical manifestation of America's Cold War "containment" policy. Using primary source documents, you can examine the roles of major military, political, and strategic players in 1950 and determine through role-play whether the United States should have intervened in Korea.

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