The Three Parts of a History Paper

I. THE INTRODUCTION: The introduction is usually one paragraph, or perhaps two in a paper of eight pages or more. Its purpose is to: (1) set out the problem to be discussed; (2) define key terms that will be used in that discussion; (3) outline the structure of the argument; (4) CLEARLY STATE THE THESIS.

A. Suggestions for the introduction:

Establish the problem:
Quickly established the issue your paper confronts. Where and when are we? What are we examining? It is especially important to clearly define the limits of your exploration. If you are discussing the life of Frederick Douglass, it will not suffice to establish the setting by referring to the "days of slavery," since slavery has existed in all times all over the world. Frederick Douglass was a slave in Maryland in the decades before the Civil War. Do not begin a history paper with absurdly general phrases like, "since the beginning of time," or "humans have always. . . ." Get as specific as necessary as early as possible.

Set the tone, voice, and style of your paper. (See other guidelines for how this is done.) Make sure you convey that the topic is of vital concern, and that you are interested in it.

Catch the reader's attention. You might start with an example, a quotation, a statistic, or a complaint. Be sure that this opening theme runs through your paper. Do not abandon this theme. You can use it again later to help unify your paper.

Provide a subtle blueprint (or "road map") for the paper. Let your reader know where you are headed (how you plan to tackle the subject) without giving away your best ideas. If, for instance, your paper breaks down into political, social, and cultural components, telegraph this to your reader so she will know what to expect.

B. The thesis:

The last function of the introduction is to present your thesis. This is so important to your paper that it merits lengthy consideration -- please see my handout on this topic. The biggest problem with student papers is that they contain no true thesis. The second biggest problem with student papers is that the thesis is vague and ill-defined.

How the thesis fits in the introductory paragraph: The thesis statement is the one-sentence version of your argument. The thesis thus presents your reader with new information. But a good thesis will require you to introduce the concepts in it before presenting the thesis itself. That is the task of the introductory paragraph. The following introductory paragraph presents a thesis that relies on concepts which have not been properly defined and clarified:

Since the beginning of time humans have owned one another in slavery. This brutal institution was carried to its fullest extent in the United States in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Slaveholders treated their slaves as chattel, brutalizing them with the whip and the lash. The law never recognized the humanity of the slave, and similarly regarded him as property. Consequently, there was a big disparity between private and public rights of slaves.

This thesis presents two words -- "private" and "public" rights -- that are not even mentioned earlier in the paragraph. What are these things? This paragraph does nothing to establish the distinction. Instead, it is a bland statement of theme which provides little background for the thesis. Thus, when we do read the thesis, it seems to float -- the premises underlying it have not been established. Compare the last introductory paragraph with this one:

To many supporters of slavery, the nature of slave rights had a dual character. On the one hand, in order to maintain the total dominance of the white master class, the law denied any rights to slaves. Publicly, the slave was merely property, and not human at all. Yet the personal records of many planters suggest that slaves often proved able to demand customary "rights" from their masters. In the privacy of the master-slave relationship, the black man did indeed have rights which the white man was bound to respect, on pain of losing his labor or subjecting himself to violence. This conflict between slaves' lack of "public" rights and masters' "private" acknowledgment of slaves' rights undermined planters' hegemony and permitted slaves to exert a degree of autonomy and freedom within an oppressive institution.

Note how quickly this paragraph lays the groundwork for the thesis. It is clearly structured around two competing concepts -- public and private rights -- which are then incorporated into the thesis. Nearly every element of the thesis is established in the preceding paragraph, yet the thesis itself is not a restatement of the paragraph. This paragraph even tells the reader what sources will be consulted: planters' personal records. Note finally that, in contrast to the previous paragraph, the reader now has a strong sense of what the paper will need to argue to prove its thesis.

II. THE BODY: This takes up several pages, and constitutes the bulk of your paper. Here is where you argue your thesis. The content of this section largely will depend on your thesis, and what it requires you to argue. Think to yourself, "what do I need to support this argument?" If you find yourself unable to answer, you may need a more interesting thesis.

A. Structure of the body: You need an organizing scheme for your paper, which most often will be suggested by your thesis. Let's take this thesis: "In the 1950s, American auto workers developed their identities as laborers in the home as well as the workplace." This thesis suggests a structure: at the very least, you will have to divide things up into "home" and "workplace."

B. Logic and flow: The general movement in the body is from the general to the specific. Start with general statements, such as "Federal policy towards native peoples aimed at either assimilating Indians or exterminating them." Then move on to specific statements which support your general statement, such as "The origins of the policy of assimilation can be traced back to Puritan missionaries of the 1650s."

C. Paragraphs: Your paper is built on paragraphs. Each paragraph should be minimum of four (sometimes three) sentences. The first sentence of each paragraph is called the "topic sentence."

D. Topic sentences: The topic sentence should tell the reader what the paragraph will be about. In essence, it is a "mini-thesis" -- a small argument you will support in the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph will be support for this mini-argument. For example, the topic sentence for a paragraph may be the general statement:

Federal policy towards native peoples aimed at either assimilating Indians or exterminating them. (Note that you are including no specific facts in this sentence, you are merely making an argument which must be supported with facts and evidence.)

E. Support: Two kinds of support should appear in your paragraphs:

Source evidence and quotations: Taken from primary (sometimes secondary) sources. Can be quoted material, but not always -- you can always paraphrase (put in your own words) this material, as long as you acknowledge the source. This is the "raw data" that supports the mini-thesis of your paragraph. In the case above (federal policy towards Indians), you could, for instance, quote portions of this letter from Thomas Jefferson, in which he advocates to the Mohicans private ownership of land to Indians as a means of assimilating them:

When once you have property, you will want laws and magistrates to protect your property and persons, and to punish those among you who commit crimes. You will find that our laws are good for this purpose; you will wish to live under them, you will unite yourselves with us, join in our Great Councils and form one people with us, and we shall be Americans. (1)

Analysis: Raw data can never, everstand alone to support your mini-thesis. It must always be interpreted and analyzed. This is especially true of quotes. Never just plop a quote in and expect it to be clear to the reader how it supports the mini-thesis. Following each citation of raw data, you must analyze and interpret it -- tell me how it supports the point. In the case above, you must supply the connection between the primary source evidence (the quotation above) and your "mini-thesis" (that assimilation was one of the goals of federal policy):

Jefferson had little interest in understanding Native American culture and society on its own terms. To him, "assimilation" meant encompassing natives in a web of obligations and institutional arrangements which utterly departed from the anarchy he alleged characterized their societies, and rendered them dependent upon the "civilized" society he represented. (Note that these are my thoughts, my words, and my analysis of the material. I am not permitting the material to speak for itself, because it cannot.)

F. Transitions: The body of the paper must flow from one idea to the next. This linking of ideas is accomplished through transitional phrases. There are transitions between paragraphs, and transitions within paragraphs. Often, but not always, the last sentence of a paragraph begins to guide the reader to the next idea. (For this reason, it is often a good idea to end paragraphs with a sentence summing-up their findings.) Or the topic sentence of the next paragraph may accomplish this. In the current example, this topic sentence for the next paragraph not only introduces a new mini-thesis, it serves as a transition from the preceding paragraph:

If Jefferson embodied a policy of assimilation, President Andrew Jackson represented the ambivalence of a nation enamored with both assimilation and extermination of Native Americans. (The key to the transition is the phrase "If Jefferson embodied a policy of assimilation." This phrase bridges the last paragraph by summarizing its findings. As you can tell, the paragraph(s) must deal with the ways Jackson represented the embodiment of both policies towards Native Americans.)

Here is another example of a clear transition:

. . . Sailors in the merchant marine faced a troublesome labor picture. Seasonal fluctuations and the unpredictability of the economy of the shipping industry contributed to instability in employment relations. These in turn led to a decline in workers's loyalty and their sense of job stability.
Instability and insecurity also characterized the wage and employment conditions of longshore work. . . .
(The transition here is built on the use of "also" in this topic sentence, which links the "instability and insecurity" of the longshoremen in this paragraph with the "instability and insecurity" of the sailors in the previous paragraph.)

G. Arguing in the body: The body is where you will flex your rhetorical muscle. Scholarly argument is not necessarily rancorous; it does not rely upon heated emotions, raised voices, and passionate appeals to the heart. Rather, scholarly arguments marshall facts -- and analyze those facts -- in a fashion intended to persuade the reader through reason rather than emotion. The most important technique for doing this is to anticipate the counter-arguments your argument is likely to receive. You must constantly ask yourself, what arguments which counter my thesis make sense? You may do this one of two ways:

(1) you may refute an anticipated counter-argument by proving that it is untrue (sort of a preemptive strike), as in, "While the federal census of 1890 seems to suggest an increase in black mortality, that census was infamous for recording specious data."

(2) you may concede certain points: accept the truth of statements which seem to refute your argument, but explain why they actually do not harm your argument (sort of a strategic retreat), as in "It was indeed true that Latino youth were incarcerated at a rate three to four times greater than Anglo youth, yet this may suggest the iniquitous workings of the local justice system rather than a Latino propensity towards crime."

In history, these strategies often mean dealing with evidence that seems to undermine the point you are trying to make. It is crucial that you not ignore this evidence; after all, the reader will not. Selectively invoking evidence while ignoring counter-arguments undermines your credibility, and hence the force of your argument. Consider the following paragraph:

White Southerners were concerned only with re-imposing a kind of slavery on the freedpeople. They voted the straight Democratic ticket, which sought to overturn "Negro rule," and they supported secret organizations like the Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia. In short, their regard for the civil rights of the newly-freed slaves was almost non-existent. (The fallacy here is one of over-generalization. The author claims that all southern whites supported the move to return freedpeople to a kind of slavery. But we know that some southern whites did support black rights in the era, and voted Republican. By refusing to consider countervailing evidence, the author undermines what is a generally sound point: most southern whites supported the Democracy, but not all. By anticipating and countering these criticisms, this author would enhance her credibility and make a good argument more persuasive.)

III. CONCLUSION: This is usually one paragraph long, and briefly recapitulates your thesis, pulling all your arguments together. The first sentence of the concluding paragraph is a clear, specific re-statement of thesis. The conclusion should do more than simply re-state the argument. It also suggests why the argument is important in the bigger scheme of things, or suggests avenues for further research, or raises a bigger question.

1. Jefferson to Delawares, Mohicans, and Munries, December 21, 1808, in Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert E. Bergh, eds., Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, DC, 1904), vol. 16, p. 452.