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First Assignment

Choose one of the following five assignments. Your paper (5-6 pages) is due on Session 4 no later than 5:00pm. You may submit the paper in class on Session 4, or by email attachment (with the suffix .doc, .pdf, or .rtf). If you send the paper by attachment, you must keep a backup paper copy and be ready to submit that if there are any computer difficulties. Extensions will be granted only in advance; computer malfunctions are never an acceptable excuse for a late submission. Adherence to standards of academic honesty is required; please exercise special care with sources found on the worldwide web. You may use any citation system that you wish (MLA parenthetical reference style, Chicago Manual of Style, legal citation), as long as your references are clear and complete.

1. Coverture

Read the following quote:

"These are the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture; upon which we may observe, that even the disabilities, which the wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit. So great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England."
— William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765).

Is Blackstone's commentary an accurate description of the lived experience of law in colonial America (which, in case you've forgotten, was subject to "the laws of England")? Why or why not? If you choose this topic, be sure to select your evidence carefully in order to support your argument with clear examples.

Blackstone's Commentaries
(Link to searchable full text of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, from the web site of the Yale Law School.)

2. Seneca Falls

Was (or if you prefer, "Is") the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments a radical document? If you choose this topic, you may wish to read the short essays by Eleanor Flexner and Gerda Lerner. You will probably also want to take a close look at the Declaration of Independence. However you structure the argument, be sure to define your terms.

3. Polygamy and the Constitution

Consider the following quote from Sarah Barringer Gordon in The Mormon Question: "the constitutional triumph of antipolygamy indirectly and implicitly undermined the constitutional power of antipolygamists, even as it eviscerated the constitutional claims of Mormons." (p. 15). Was the resolution of the Mormon polygamy controversy a victory for religious liberty, or a defeat? Be sure to define your terms.

4. Modern Marriage Wars in Historical Perspective

Legal activist groups frequently turn to scholars for historical perspectives on contemporary issues. In the current debate over the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, very little attention has been paid to the nineteenth-century debate over Mormon plural marriage. Imagine that you have been called in by one of the following activist groups: the Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition, the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy, or Concerned Women for America. What would you tell the members of the group? Can the current debate learn anything from the experiences of people in the nineteenth century? If you choose this topic, be sure to consider issues of religious liberty, morality and the constitution, and federal-state relations as well as the politics and meaning of marriage as a legal institution. (You don't have to address all of these in your paper. Just be sure to think about them as you write.) Note: if you haven't been following the news lately, you may find this topic harder than you realize.

5. Design Your Own Topic

If you would like to write a paper that involves more in-depth historical research into one of the cases or issues that we have studied in the last few weeks, you are welcome to do that, as long as you consult with me in advance. Examples could include gender in Puritan law, the legal status of widows in early America, or the relationship between law and religion in the nineteenth century.

Final Paper Assignment

This paper is designed to give you a chance to research a topic that is of interest to you, in enough depth that you can become an expert on a small corner of historical research and develop your own interpretations based on your analysis of original primary materials. This is a research paper that requires you to base your argument on material not on the class syllabus. You should develop a base broad enough to make substantial historical claims, but not so much that you find yourself writing a book or a Ph.D. dissertation. In fourteen to sixteen pages, present your argument and support it with close analysis of documents and in conjunction with at least one other secondary interpretation.

Although broad, this topic is not entirely open-ended. Your paper should give some sense of how your interpretation of the event, theme, or documents relate to existing secondary interpretations or commonly held historical assumptions. You do not need to make that the central focus of your paper, but simply telling "what happened" will not be enough for this assignment. We will discuss this in greater depth along the way.

This is not the kind of paper that you can write in one night or even in one weekend, and the requirements for the paper are set up to prevent you from trying to do that. By Session 10, you should email me with some thoughts about possible topics. (Some of you have already done this.) At this point, it's best to be general and broad, and to keep more than one option open, in case primary and secondary source material is not available. Along the way, we will have discussions in class about research, writing, and conceptualization to get you to start thinking about your topic if you haven't already done so. During this time you should be doing your background research. Leave time for dead ends.

By Session 12, you should hand in or email me a brief description of your paper that describes the primary source material that you will use, the secondary historical sources you've considered, and the questions that you think your paper will address. You don't have to have a thesis statement, an opening paragraph, or an outline, but you might find it useful to draft something to give me (and you!) a sense of where you are headed. I will look at it to consider whether the source material you've found can help you address those questions and vice versa, and to give you more suggestions about research possibilities. This is required, and counts for 5% of your final grade. I will respond to them by email. By Session 13, you should hand in or email me a bibliography. It does not have to be in final form, but it should be complete enough so that I can tell where you are headed. You can also submit outlines or opening paragraphs at this point and I will try to help you as you are writing.

The final paper is due on paper in class on Session 14. I encourage you to share your draft with a peer editor or a writing center staff member as you wrap it up.

Tracking Down Materials

There are a number of collections of primary sources in American history from which you could put together a list of sources. The Annals of America series and the Major Problems in ... series are particularly good. MIT has a remarkably good collection of magazines and newspapers of the twentieth century, some on microfilm, some in the basement of Hayden Library, and others in the RetroSpective Collection. Use reference works like Poole's Index (for the 19th century) or the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature (after 1900 or so). Court opinions and laws are widely available on FindLaw (Online), although older cases are not always as easily accessible. If you are focusing on a specific person, it would be worth your time to look him/her up in something like American National Biography, Who's Who, or Notable American Women. The Blackwell Companion to American Thought is useful for intellectual and cultural trends. Those working in literary sources should consult the Dictionary of Literary Biography for the authors they are considering. Other works like Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, or Jonathan Katz, Gay American History can give a multicultural perspective. A good starting place for any research is The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John Garraty. I can suggest additional background readings too.

Finding Secondary Literature on the Topic

Some sources can be found by looking through general histories of your topic; others can be tracked down through guides to scholarly literature. You will probably find Google generally unhelpful for this stage of the project. If I were writing on the US Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), I might look in some general books on the history of the Civil Rights movement to see what they say about the case—even before I looked at any of the many books that have been written solely about Brown. I would also look for additional articles. An article or chapter or two is probably enough to get you started at the beginning.

Reference Librarians

These folks are very helpful, particularly with such issues as identifying on-line sources, working with microfilm and microfiche, or navigating various article indexes.

Extensions

You have plenty of time to plan for the paper; extensions should not be necessary except in case of emergency. I have set the paper deadline at the end of the classes to give you time during the exam period. Please remember that computer-related crises are not valid reasons for an extension; leave yourself a cushion of time in case something breaks or will not print.

Citation

Be careful to cite sources of information and ideas that you use in your paper, both primary and secondary. Be particularly thorough with materials that you are working with on the web. You may use any of the standard methods of citation (footnotes, endnotes, parenthetical references, etc.), as long as you are complete and consistent. Be sure to leave enough time to prepare your citations in the proper format.


 
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