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Buddhist Temple of the Goddess of Mercy. Watercolor, George West

[Detail] Buddhist Temple of the Goddess of Mercy

Collection Overview

Words and Deeds in American History provides 92 documents spanning the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. These documents were chosen by the Library of Congress Manuscript Division in honor of its centennial. Highlights include George Washington's first inaugural address, the telegram announcing the first flight of the Wright Brothers, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's The Woman's Bible.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The American Revolution, 1763-1783
  • The New Nation, 1780-1815
  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
  • Postwar United States, 1945-early 1970s

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

There are currently no other resources for this collection

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or broswe by Chronological List in Words and Deeds in American History to see a list of documents within each different time frame.

For help with search words, use the Name and Subject Index.

A Related Terms section at the bottom of documents in the collection provides links to related items within the collection.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.

U.S. History

Words and Deeds in American History presents important historical manuscripts that have been divided into broad thematic groups representing the holdings of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Each of these thematic groups are introduced by an essay that provides background to the historical documents and is useful for setting these materials within a curriculum context. Some of these broad thematic groups are illustrated below with one or two curriculum examples. These examples are only starting points to spur research and discussion on many important historical topics that are addressed in the K-12 curriculum.

1) The Presidency

While the Library of Congress holds the papers of 23 Presidents, this American Memory collection provides selected papers from presidents Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Polk, Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Kennedy. These items are found on the Presidential Items List.

Use this list to begin studying the role of presidential administrations in civil rights. For a middle or secondary school exercise, divide the class into groups. Have each group analyze one of the primary documents listed below and its accompanying essay:

  • Letter, Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker expressing his belief that blacks possess talents equal to those of "other colours of men," 30 August 1791.
  • Sales contract between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for an indentured servant's remaining term, 19 April 1809.
  • Letter, Abraham Lincoln to Charles Sumner outlining the president's belief that the dependents of black and white soldiers should be treated equally, 19 May 1864.
  • Letter,Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White detailing the First Lady's lobbying efforts for federal action against lynchings, 19 March 1936.

Ask each group to prepare a presentation for the class describing what their document reveals about that administration's commitment to civil rights for all citizens. Students should use the primary documents as their main evidence, but might use additional resources, such as the White House presidential biographies, to support their work.

2) Military Affairs

Manuscripts documenting events and decisions made during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and the Korean War can be found in the Military Affairs section of the collection, and are useful to help students understand the significance of military and political events. For example, when studying the Civil War, students can examine the following documents found in this collection:

  • Draft of Abraham Lincoln's instructions to Maj. Robert Anderson in command at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, 4 April 1861.
  • Letter, Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln advising her husband to remove the hesitant Gen. George B. McClellan from command, 2 November [1862].
  • Ulysses S. Grant's commission as lieutenant general signed by Abraham Lincoln, 10 March 1864.
  • Letter, Abraham Lincoln to Charles Sumner outlining the president's belief that the dependents of black and white soldiers should be treated equally, 19 May 1864.

Using the essays that accompany each of these items, ask students to consider which of these documents was most important to the outcome of the Civil War? Why? Consider a classroom debate on this topic.

3) Arts, Literature

Words and Deeds in American History is rich in literary and cultural history and includes manuscripts to and by famous poets, playrights, writers, filmmakers and artists. Many of these items are unique not only as art, but as historical statement.

For example, consider the women's suffrage movement. To provide your students with background on this issue, have them review the Teacher Page Feature Presentation, Pioneering Women in American Memory. Students can then read Susan B. Anthony's letter to Adelaide Johnson discussing women ministers and Johnson's sculpture memorializing prominent suffragists, 8 February 1896.

As a class, discuss:

  • Why these women were immortalized in statuary?
  • Why these women and not others?
  • What was the significance in their accomplishments?
  • Who might be immortalized in this fashion today?

Next, students can use the Architect of the Capitol's web site describing art in the U.S. Capitol building to learn about the monument today. Finally, students can search congress.gov, 104th Congress to find House Concurrent Resolution 216. This resolution, adopted by Congress in September 1996, relocated the suffragist monument to the Capitol Rotunda in May 1997.

4) Science, Medicine, Exploration, and Invention

Manuscripts by or about famous scientists, engineers, explorers and inventors will be fascinating to students researching the "stories" of scientific discoveries. Representing a wide range of individuals, from Thomas Jefferson to Herman Hollerith to Sigmund Freud to Wilbur Wright, students will find many interesting items.

Ask students to examine the items found on the Invention Item List in terms of their relevance to today's communications technology. For example, students might select:

Examine these items and list their attributes. What similarities and differences do you see between these items and today's computers?

[Note: Students might use sites such as the Smithsonian's From Carbon to Computers or Bright Ideas from the National Archives to help them formulate their relevancy rankings.]

5) African-American History and Culture

Words and Deeds in American History will be useful to students researching slavery and African-American life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as civil rights in the twentieth century. Manuscripts by Frederick Douglass, Carter Woodson, and Booker T. Washington as well as contemporary civil rights activities are included. For a more contemporary history assignment, have students search the collection on Brown v. Board of Education to find:

  • Notes, William O. Douglas to Earl Warren, 11 May 1954; Harold H. Burton to Warren, 17 May 1954; and Felix Frankfurter to Warren, 17 May 1954, concerning Chief Justice Warren's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
  • Felix Frankfurter's draft decree to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education decision, [8 April 1955]

Give students class time to read the thematic essay and these two manuscripts. Then, have students deliver impromptu speeches to answer one of the following questions:

  • Why was it important for the Supreme Court to issue a unanimous decision in the Brown vs. The Board of Education?
  • Why was it important for Justice Frankfurter to use the phrase 'All Deliberate Speed' when planning enforcement of the Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling?

6) Women's History

Spanning all time periods, classes, races, and occupations, Words and Deeds in American History contains manuscripts of women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and more contemporary leaders such as Margaret Mead, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jacqueline Kennedy.

As a classroom assignment, have students examine Amelia's palm print and analysis of her character prepared by Nellie Simmons Meier, 28 June 1933. Ask students to read both the essay about Earhart and the accompanying primary source. Then, have students research Earhart in other sources. Why was Amelia motivated to fly? Do you suspect any of her characteristics are common among women in aviation today?

Critical Thinking

Words and Deeds in American History can lead students into exciting exploration of events and people in our nation's past. Using the items in this collection as starting points, students can build an understanding of pivotal moments in America's past, present, and future.

1) Chronological Thinking

Revisit the four Civil War documents you examined in the U.S. History section of this Learn More About It. Place these four manuscripts on the time line found in the American Memory Selected Civil War Photographs collection. What can be inferred from ordering the documents in this fashion?

Ask students to search the collection for Frederick Douglass. Read the essay that accompanies the Chapter from Frederick Douglass's draft manuscript of his autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, ca. 1880. After researching Douglass' life in other sources, have students create a poster which depicts the "most important year" for Frederick Douglass. Have students present their posters to the class and explain why they selected that year.

[Note: The National Park Service's Frederick Douglass National Historic Site will be useful in completing this assignment.]

2) Historical Comprehension

Have students review the Words and Deeds in American History Politics Item List to find material related to the Compromise of 1850. Ask students to read the essays on:

  • John C. Calhoun's speech to the United States Senate against the Compromise of 1850, 4 March 1850.
  • Daniel Webster's notes for his speech to the United States Senate favoring the Compromise of 1850, 7 March 1850.

As a class activity, use Calhoun's notes and Webster's notes to transcribe the opening paragraphs of each speech into typewritten format. Select two students to role play the dying Calhoun and the impassioned Webster and read the opening statements aloud. Have the class act as Congress and vote in favor of Calhoun or Webster.

Discuss the result of Compromise's passage (deferral of the Civil War), and why these two speeches illustrate the democratic process. For additional information, students might read the Today in History Archive on Compromise of 1850, Webster, and Calhoun.

3) Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Use this collection to set the stage for a research project about the influence of First Ladies on presidential administrations and/or the United States as a country. Have students search the collection to find items related to first ladies. Students may find selections such as:

  • Letter, Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln advising her husband to remove the hesitant Gen. George B. McClellan from command, 2 November [1862].
  • Letter, Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White detailing the First Lady's lobbying efforts for federal action against lynchings, 19 March 1936.
  • Letter, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy to Toni Frissell discussing Frissell's photographs of the Kennedys' September 1953 wedding reception in Newport, Rhode Island, [1953].

Have the class read the essays and review enlarged versions of the primary sources they find. Ask students to consider if the documents show evidence of a First Lady exerting political influence.

As a follow up project, have students research the legacy of one of the first ladies represented in Words and Deeds in American History. Compare her political and national influence to a First Lady who has served within the last 20 years. Describe the position of First Lady as you imagine it will be 20 years from now.

[Note: Students might use the National First Ladies Library to find additional sources of information.]

4) Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

While studying World War II, have students read the essay accompanying the Memorandum from Joseph Stalin about opening a second front in Europe during World War II. Have student teams research World War II's second front in other sources. [Note: The U.S. State Department's Wartime Conferences Between the Allies may be helpful.] Ask questions such as:

  • What were conflicting concerns about timing the opening of the second front?
  • If you were President Roosevelt, how would you have responded to Stalin's memorandum?
  • Based on what you know about the course of World War II, would you have opened the second front sooner than President Roosevelt advised? Why or why not?

5) Historical Research Capabilities

Have students discuss how the Library of Congress Manuscript Division selected these core documents to comprise this American Memory collection. You can read about this in About The Selections: The Core Collection Project.

Assign groups of students to assemble a core collection of documents that describes their class or school. Ask students what primary sources would be important for providing an accurate record. Consider using The Historian's Sources lesson plan for guidance on types of primary sources to help students organize data gathering. Have the students present their "core collection" to the whole class either as a "show-and-tell" or as a virtual museum-style electronic presentation.

Arts & Humanities

Words and Deeds in American History provides a personal glimpse through letters, art, and literature into the lives of many influential writers and artists, including Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Langston Hughes, and Helen Keller. Through its thematic group Arts and Literature, this collection provides an excellent springboard for language arts activities. These materials can lead to rich reading and writing experiences steeped in American history.

1) Literature

To understand the creativity of Helen Keller, you can help students understand what it means to be both deaf and blind. Hide an object in a cardboard box with a hole cut in it. Have students feel the object without looking at it, and then write a description of the object. Reveal the object and have students compare the object with their written description. Then, read aloud "Autumn", a poem by Helen Keller written in 1893. How do you think a person who was deaf and blind could write a visually descriptive poem like this? Research Hellen Keller with other resources.

[Note: Students might refer to the Web sites such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind's The Life of Helen Keller and Helen Keller International's About Helen Keller.]

What is the background of Walt Whitman's famous poem "O Captain, My Captain." Recite the poem aloud to the class. Ask students to search the Selected Civil War Photographs collection for images of Lincoln's funeral, and then compare those images with the imagery in the poem. Discuss questions such as:

  • Why do you think Whitman calls Lincoln his "Captain?"
  • What does the ship in the poem represent?
  • What does Whitman mean by, 'The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done?"

Have students write a poem about a loss in their lives. Conclude by having students revise the poem after several days.

2) Theater

Ask students to read the essay and the document for Clare Boothe Luce's scene description of her play The Women, ca. 1936. Once students have read the scene description, ask them questions such as:

  • Why is the cosmetics counter an effective setting for a meeting of these rival women?
  • Would the setting work for a play set in today's times? Why? Why not?
  • What other settings would work today?

Have students write and illustrate a scene description for the meeting of two rivals. The description should include a brief explanation of the cause of the rivalry and a short summary of why the setting will effectively set off the rivalry.

For background information, research the interesting life of playwright, Congresswoman, journalist, ambassador, and publisher Clare Boothe Luce. To learn about Luce's experiences as a photojournalist during World War II, consult the Library of Congress special exhibit Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers, and Broadcasters During World War II. Search Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964 for portraits of Luce.