AP® U.S. History Primary Sources
If you were ever a small child [as most of us once were], you are most likely familiar with a game called Telephone. For those who have never played it, the game begins with one participant whispering something into another person’s ear, making sure that none of the other participants playing the game can hear what they’ve said. The recipient of this whispered message then shares what they believe they’ve heard in another person’s ear, and then that participant passes the message along to another person, and so forth. The last participant to hear the message then announces what they think it was to the group. It inevitably differs from the original message that the person who whispered it first shared.
In a way, history kind of works like this, too. Over the years, the original context and understanding of a historical event or time period can become skewed as each person interprets it differently, projecting their own biases and opinions, before passing that information along to future generations through secondary sources. The whole process can make it difficult to truly understand how a historical event really happened.
Incorporating American History Primary Source Documents into Your APUSH Class
AP U.S. History primary sources, such as letters, diaries, photographs, speeches, and government documents, provide a closer look into historical events and give students a deeper understanding of the past. APUSH teachers can use primary sources in many ways, such as with group work, research projects, and class discussions.
American history primary sources can be used to teach students analytical and critical thinking techniques, empowering them to think creatively and apply their knowledge when drawing conclusions about the past.
APUSH Government Documents
In AP United States History, significant American documents are essential to understanding the nation's past and its continuing evolution. These documents provide a window into the political, social, and economic forces that have shaped American society, and they help us understand how the United States has become the country it is today.
The United States Constitution (1787)
Bill of Rights (1791)
Homestead Act (1862)
The Emancipation Proclamation (1863)
The 14th Amendment (1868)
The 19th Amendment (1920)
Civil Rights Act of 1964 (1964)
AP U.S. History Speeches
American speeches have had a significant impact on the political and cultural landscape of the United States. Speeches have been used since the founding of the country to express important ideas, lead people, and inspire change. From Abraham Lincoln's “Gettysburg Address” to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream," these iconic speeches have become a part of American culture and have helped shape the course of history.2
“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” by Patrick Henry (1775)
“Farewell Address” by George Washington (1783)
“Ain’t I a Woman?” by Sojourner Truth (1851)
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass (1852)
The “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln (1863
“Seneca Falls Convention” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1848)
“I Will Fight No More” by Chief Joseph (1877)
“Freedom or Death” by Emmeline Pankhurst (1913)
“Inaugural Speech” by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933)
“Luckiest Man” by Lou Gehrig (1939)
“Pearl Harbor Address” by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1941)
“Inaugural Address” by John F. Kennedy (1961)
“I Have a Dream” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)
“Tear down this wall!” by Ronald Reagan (1987)
APUSH Historical Documents, Personal Accounts, Letters, and Narratives
The American Crisis, by Thomas Paine (1775)
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787-1788)
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin (1791)
Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass (1845)
Letters from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)
AP U.S. History Newspaper and Magazine Sources
“Ten Days in a Mad-House,” by Nellie Bly in the New York World newspaper (1887)
"The Wounded Knee Massacre" by the New York Times (1890)
"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair in the socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason (1905)
"The Watergate Scandal" by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in The Washington Post (1972-1974)
AP U.S. History Court Records
Historical court cases have shaped the legal and political landscape of the United States. Many of these cases, which have had a significant impact on American society, involved concerns like civil rights, free speech, and due process. In the famous 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education4, for example, segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional. This paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
Roe v. Wade (1973)
AP U.S. History Photographs
American historical photographs are important because they enable us to view and experience historical events that we otherwise would not be able to witness. They convey the spirit of a situation, individual, or event and can shed light on the social, political, and cultural atmosphere of the time.
"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange (1936)
"Flag Raising on Iwo Jima" by Joe Rosenthal (1945)
"Bloody Sunday" by Charles Moore (1965)
"V-J Day in Times Square" by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945)
"Dust Bowl" by Arthur Rothstein (1936)
AP U.S. History Artistic or Creative Works
"The Star-Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key (1814)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“American Gothic” by Grand Wood (1930)
"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday (1939)
“Rosie the Riveter” Poster by J. Howard Miller (1942)
“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway (1952)
"The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan (1963)
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou (1969)
Web Site Resources for AP U.S. History Primary Sources
American History Primary Sources and Document-Based Questions (DBQs)
Using American history primary sources is one of the best ways for AP United States History teachers to help their students get ready for document-based questions (DBQs) on the exam. By examining primary sources, students can gain a deeper understanding of historical events, perspectives, and motivations, and develop the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze and interpret these sources. Teachers can use primary sources in a variety of ways, such as by incorporating them into class discussions, giving homework assignments involving primary source analysis, and using them as the basis for DBQ questions in class or on practice exams.
Teachers can give students a set of guiding questions when using primary sources in DBQ preparation so that students can analyze the sources and recognize important themes and arguments. Teachers can also demonstrate how to analyze primary sources by highlighting important details and elaborating on how these details connect to larger historical contexts and themes.
Additionally, APUSH teachers can help their students prepare for the exam’s DBQs by having them practice answering questions with UWorld’s Learning Tools for AP Courses. UWorld offers students access to a comprehensive library of primary sources and practice questions designed to help them prepare for document-based questions on the APUSH exam.
Primary sources are a necessary part of teaching and learning AP United States History. These sources provide students with a unique opportunity to engage with historical events through firsthand accounts and objects. Photographs, artistic creations, musical compositions, literary works, and historical documents are just a few examples of the primary source materials that teachers can use to develop interesting and educational lessons.