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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Words and Deeds in American History
Buddhist Temple of the Goddess of Mercy. Watercolor, George West

[Detail] Buddhist Temple of the Goddess of Mercy

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 Each of these thematic groups are introduced by an essay that provides background to the historical documents and is useful for setting these materials within a curriculum context.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?