Teaching Civics with Primary Source Documents

By Potter, Lee Ann | Social Education, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview

Teaching Civics with Primary Source Documents


Potter, Lee Ann, Social Education


Sometimes it is more than just embarrassing to lack civic awareness. Let's take the case of Jacob Koontz, a Revolutionary War veteran living in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, in 1816. On July 14 of that year, Koontz, apparently unaware that the president of the country was James Madison, wrote to former President Thomas Jefferson asking for help in securing financial payment rather than a land warrant for his wartime service, and included his original discharge papers as proof of his service.

About two weeks later, Jefferson sent a letter to Secretary of War William H. Crawford in Washington, D.C., from Jefferson's home in Virginia, and enclosed Koontz's request. In his letter, Jefferson sought to assist Koontz, but also expressed dismay that the man still believed that Jefferson was the president of the United States. Jefferson exclaimed, "I know all of the irregularities of this, but we must not be too regular to do a good act, and there is no danger of the precedent; for we shall never find another in the U.S. who shall be ignorant of the name of his president 7 years after the change."

Jefferson's letter provides a great starting point for teaching civics with primary sources. Sharing a copy of Jefferson's letter with students or colleagues may well spark a conversation about both civic literacy and responsibility.

Primary sources, such as Jefferson's letter, are materials that were created by those who participated in or witnessed the events of the past. They can include letters, reports, photographs, drawings, sound recordings, motion pictures, and artifacts, as well as other items. In recent years, the use of primary sources as teaching tools in history classes has increased dramatically. This is due, in part, to the rapidly increasing availability of facsimiles, images, and transcriptions on the World Wide Web and to encouragement from the National History Standards for their inclusion. But their usefulness can extend well beyond the study of history into virtually every subject, particularly civics--civic affairs and the rights and duties of citizens.

Although rights and duties are not tangible, primary sources that reflect and reinforce them are. They reflect events and experiences that actually occurred and introduce students to the individuals who lived them. In addition to the appeal of primary sources in terms of their tangibility and authenticity, their physical attributes can further capture student attention. …

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