The American Historian

Teaching the Survey: Resources on Civic Action and Social Change in a Republic with Primary Sources from the Library of Congress

Lee Ann Potter

Author’s Note: Two of my colleagues and I had planned to present a workshop entitled "Teaching about Civic Action and Social Change with Primary Sources from the Library of Congress,” for the 2020 OAH conference in Washington, DC. We had described it as a hands-on session that 

“will explore civic action and social change in the women’s suffrage movement and the long struggle for racial equality. Participants will be introduced to primary sources in a variety of media from across numerous Library of Congress collections related to women suffrage to gain multiple perspectives and draw more comprehensive conclusions; will take a close look at examples from the Rosa Parks Papers; and will have opportunity to consider common threads in both movements.”

Although the in-person session could not happen due to COVID-19 and the subsequent cancelation of the in-person OAH Annual Meeting, Cheryl Lederle and Jen Reidel did record a version of the workshop and it has been made available online from OAH here. This article reflects a bit of that workshop, and directs readers to additional, related online resources from the Library of Congress—items that are ideal for instructors who have had to pivot online.


Between May and September 1787, fifty-five delegates from twelve of the thirteen states met in Philadelphia. Directed by Congress to revise the Articles of Confederation, they ultimately created the United States Constitution. One of the delegates from Maryland was James McHenry, an Irish immigrant who served as an aide to General George Washington, and later to Lafayette, during the Revolutionary War. Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, McHenry began keeping a personal journal. Due to the unexpected illness of his brother, however, he returned home and missed much of the convention—from June 1 to August 4—but the information he included when he was present was quite detailed. For the latter part of the Convention’s work, besides the official Journal and what James Madison recorded, his diary presents almost the only material that currently exists. Today, his journal resides in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress.

In one of his last entries, dated Tuesday, September 18, 1787, the day after the convention adjourned, McHenry recorded,

“a lady asked Dr. Franklin 

well Doctor what have we got 

a republic or a monarchy—

A republic replied the Doctor 

if you can keep it.

The lady here aluded [sic] to was 

Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia”

(Fig.1)

Sharing this brief diary entry with students and asking them what they think Benjamin Franklin meant by “if you can keep it” could kick off a compelling discussion—or perhaps even a course—about civic responsibility, as well as civic action and social change. Such an exchange might, however, require confirming that students know what a republic is. 

Merriam-Webster defines republic as “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.”  This definition identifies three important characteristics that are useful both in understanding the term and in organizing this article, which highlights primary sources in a variety of media from the Library of Congress and encourages readers to explore them further and incorporate them into instruction.

In a republic: 

1. Power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote.

Primary sources that relate to “a body of citizens” and to voting are plentiful in the Library’s collections—and they span centuries. Three examples that could take a discussion with students in a variety of directions include the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), The Awakening illustration by Henry Mayer published in Puck magazine (1915), and Rosa Parks’s voter registration certificate (1962).

Hobbes’s social contract theory was first published in Leviathan, and although not related to a republic, the image may help students visualize “the body of citizens.” Its frontispiece features a grand sovereign king. Closer analysis of the image reveals that his body is made up of individual citizens who will voluntarily consent to give up their natural freedoms to obtain the benefits of political order.

(Fig. 2)

Mayer’s illustration entitled “The Awakening” was published in Puck magazine five years before the Nineteenth Amendment granted American women the right to vote. It features a torch-bearing woman, labeled “Votes for Women,” striding across a map of the United States from west to east. She symbolizes the awakening of the nation's women to the desire for suffrage. Closer analysis of the image reveals that in the western states women already had the right to vote, but in the eastern states, women were reaching out to her. They reflected the body of citizens not yet entitled to vote.

(Fig. 3)

Parks’s voter registration certificate was a small pre-printed card, indicating that “the above named elector was registered as a voter of the city of Detroit,” in a specific ward and precinct. It was stamped with the date January 23, 1962, and signed by Parks, whose name and address were typed on the document that also contained the name of the city clerk.

(Fig. 4)

Teaching Suggestions

  • Share these three primary sources with students. 
  • Encourage careful analysis of each, perhaps using the Primary Source Analysis tool from the Library of Congress as a guide. Remember that student experience with primary source analysis can vary greatly, so modeling analysis using a “think aloud” strategy can be helpful.
  • Lead a class discussion with questions such as: What do these sources have to do with the “body of citizens” or “the body of citizens entitled to vote?” To what extent do they reflect both the power of a body of citizens and the recognition of the power of the vote? In what ways do they relate to, reflect, or lead to civic responsibility, civic action, and social change? 
  • Encourage further exploration of additional primary sources in related online exhibitions from the Library of Congress, including:

For more online exhibitions, see: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/.

Power is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to the citizens.

Primary sources that relate to “elected officers and representatives” and their responsibility to the citizens are also plentiful in the Library’s collections—within books, presidential papers, and photograph collections. Three examples that might capture student attention include pages from a children’s book (ca. 1824), a petition to Abraham Lincoln (1863), and photograph of a suffragist (1917).

The Library of Congress holds more than 500,000 children’s books and periodicals, including “The juvenile national calendar, or, A familiar description of the U.S. government,” published ca. 1824. The third page of the illustrated book, written in simple verse, reads in part,

“But first of the people my song must relate

That they choose for themselves who will govern the state . . . 

And he for whom most of the people may shout,

Is placed as a ruler until his turn’s out.”

Other pages of the little book explain the responsibilities of numerous elected officers and representatives, including the president, vice president, and members of Congress. As to members of Congress, page 10 explains, 

“As the people can’t meet altogether, you know, 

they choose from their body a few that shall go,

and he who is anxious to help to make laws,

works hardest and longest for public applause”

(Fig. 5)

The Library of Congress holds the papers of twenty-three U.S. presidents, and many of the collections have been digitized in their entirety. Among them are the papers of Abraham Lincoln, which contain a handwritten petition that “loyal citizens” of North Carolina’s Second Congressional District sent to him in the fall of 1863, nearly two and a half years after North Carolina had seceded from the Union, requesting representation in Congress.

(Fig. 6)

The Library also holds millions of photographs and more than one million of them have been digitized and are available online. Among them are a collection of images from the Records of the National Women’s Party, including a photo taken in 1917 of suffragist Virginia Arnold, next to a banner informing “Kaiser Wilson” that twenty million American women were not self-governed because they were unable to vote. 

(Fig. 7)

Teaching Suggestions

  • Share these three primary sources with students. 
  • Encourage careful analysis of them.
  • Lead a class discussion with questions such as: What do these sources have to do with “elected officers and representatives” and their relationship with and responsibility to the citizens? To what extent do they reveal techniques and tactics used by citizens to hold officials responsible and accountable? In what ways do they relate to, reflect, or lead to civic responsibility, civic action and social change? 
  • Encourage further exploration of additional primary sources in related online collections from the Library of Congress, including:

For more online collections, see: https://www.loc.gov/collections/

Elected officers and representatives govern according to law.

Primary sources that relate to elected officers and representatives governing according to law are also plentiful in the Library’s collections—from public television broadcasts of the Senate Watergate Hearings to oral history interviews with civil rights activists, and from sheet music of the suffrage movement to articles, advertisements, and political cartoons featured in historic newspapers. 

Rather than sharing examples with students for this exercise, challenge them to find specific examples—but do so strategically because the sheer magnitude of the Library’s collections can be overwhelming. Ask them to keep in mind the rule of law, and brainstorm words, images, and expressions that the phrase brings to mind. All can become useful search terms. Examples might include: elected official, representative, senator, president, law, law-abiding, justice, rule of law, scales of justice, rule of law. And encourage them to consider how the sources they find relate to, reflect, or lead to civic responsibility, civic action and social change.  If you have successfully piqued student attention with other primary sources and effectively modeled primary source analysis, students will likely find compelling examples and will be eager to share their discoveries as they explore the following:

  • The American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) is a collaboration between the Library of Congress and WGBH, featuring thousands of hours of public radio and television broadcasts, including the Senate Watergate hearings at https://americanarchive.org/special_collections/watergate
  • The Civil Rights History Project features video recordings with individuals who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and cover a wide range of topics within the freedom struggle, such as the influence of the labor movement, nonviolence and self-defense, religious faith, music, and the experiences of young activists. 
  • Women's Suffrage in Sheet Music includes more than 200 pieces of sheet music spanning the years 1838-1923, over half of which highlight women's emerging voices and suffrage efforts; the collection includes published rally songs and songsters written and compiled by notable composers and suffragists, as well as music manuscripts submitted for copyright deposit by everyday citizens. 
  • Chronicling America is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress that seeks to preserve and provide open access to America’s historic newspapers. An easy way to begin exploring this trove of historical newspapers is to browse the list of Topics in Chronicling America. The page for each topic provides important dates relevant to that topic, sample articles, and strategies for searching Chronicling America to find more.

Primary sources in a variety of media, such as those featured in this article—a diary entry, a frontispiece, an illustration, a registration certificate, a children’s book, a petition, a photograph, as well as the countless possibilities presented by collections featuring broadcasts, oral histories, sheet music, and historic newspapers—can truly capture student attention. But they can do even more. Such materials can convey powerful concepts and ideas—in the case of those included here, the concept of a republic. They introduce students to the actions and activities of individuals who were motivated to take civic action that led to social change. Such introductions can inspire students to recognize the roles they can play in responding to Dr. Franklin’s challenge, “A republic, if you can keep it.”  

Author

Lee Ann Potter is the Director of the Learning and Innovation Office at the Library of Congress, where she leads a talented team committed to developing primary source-based programs and materials that engage learners in building content knowledge, developing critical thinking strategies, practicing analysis skills—and inspire them to conduct original research. To learn more about the Library’s education programs, see: www.loc.gov/teachers.