A primary document is a text (or picture, or work of art) that provides a first-hand account of a historical event, concept, or person. Primary documents include speeches, government reports, treaties, laws, judicial rulings, public and private letters, journals, contracts, literature, poetry, paintings, and any number of other categories. Primary documents reveal the views, beliefs, and expectations of historical actors and help establish a context for the understanding of the developments and controversies of a given period of time.
Primary documents are the raw material of history; they provide key insights for historians and students of history. Historians use them to produce history books and articles (called secondary documents). You will use them as windows into the past and to understand the processes of history.
Primary documents are products of a specific time and place and are often the product of a specific author. While they provide vital clues to unlock the secrets of history, they can also be misinterpreted and misused by historians and students of history. It is also important to remember that while these historical authors shared many of the same concerns of modern readers, they should be treated on their own terms. Try not to project too much into these documents. Let them speak to you; do not try to force a meaning onto them.
In addition to the document specific questions, keep the following concepts in mind while reading and assessing primary documents:
Context: What is the document? A report? A journal/diary entry? A philosophical treatise? A public document like a treaty or a court decision? A work of literature? When was it written? A time of war or peace? A time of expansion or contraction? Where was it written? Under what circumstances?
Author: Who wrote the document? Is the author known or unknown? Was it written by a single person or a group? Was the author a government official or a private person? Male or female? Educated or uneducated?
Audience: Who was the document written for? A government body? A ruler? A select, elite group? An entire community? Was the audience educated or uneducated? Did the writer intend for the document to be read by an audience at all? Was it written for posterity or some future, unknown audience (a US History class in the 21st century, for example)?
Intent/Purpose: Why did the author or authors create this document? What purpose was it meant to fulfill? Was it written to report, to persuade, to educate, to inspire, or to entertain?
Response: How did the intended audience respond to the document? Were its recommendations adopted? Was a war averted? Did the author win public office? (Note: this may be hard to determine based merely on the document, but do your best to figure this out. Your textbook and other class materials may help you to determine the historical response to any given document.)
Veracity: All documents are produced for a specific purpose, but not all documents are fully honest about their purpose. The author might be exaggerating, he or she might be trying to hide something, or commit a fraud. The author might not have perfect knowledge of what he or she is writing about and therefore might unintentionally mislead the reader. Historians and students of history can still obtain valuable historical knowledge from flawed or misleading documents, but only if they are aware of the author’s bias and limitations. Don’t take anything at face value; question the author’s motives and knowledge. Be critical in assessing documents, but don’t dismiss the value of a flawed document.
Historical Importance: Why is this document important to historians and students of history? What can historians learn buy reading and assessing this document? What can history students learn by reading this document?