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Teaching with the Raw Materials of the Law: Primary Sources and the Legislative Process

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The following guest post by Stephen Wesson, an Educational Resource Specialist at the Library of Congress.  It is cross posted on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog.

Draft of the United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Detail, ca. August 6, 1787

For those of us at the Library of Congress who work with K-12 teachers, a crucial part of our work is promoting the effective instructional use of primary sources. Primary sources—the raw materials of history and culture—are very powerful tools for teaching. Analyzing primary documents, images, recordings, and maps from an earlier era can help students engage with content, build their critical thinking skills, and construct knowledge.

Primary sources related to U.S. legislation, though, pack an especially powerful punch. They have the potential to lead students into in-depth exploration of  the writings and ideas at the core of the American experience—the documents that have made the United States the nation that it is, and that continue to shape its evolution today.

The gateway to investigating these landmark documents is the Legislative Resources for Teachers page from the Library of Congress, which provides free online access to primary sources that trace the legislative history of the U.S., along with teaching tools that allow educators to quickly and easily integrate these documents into their curriculum.

Teachers looking for ways to engage their students with the nation’s founding documents might want to start with a close-up look at Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting. Creating the United States lets students examine rough drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, as well as providing insights into the intellectual environment and collaborative process that saw these charters come into being. Once students are immersed in the world of Adams, Madison, and Jefferson, the Library of Congress lesson plans on the Constitution and Bill of Rights let them ask critical questions of the documents and their authors. They learn how the smallest changes might have made the United States a very different nation today.

The home page of THOMAS

Meanwhile, THOMAS puts 21st-century legislative information at every student’s fingertips with easily-searchable information on laws and other legislative documents from the late 20th century to the present day. These in-depth accounts of the lawmaking process might not strike everyone as being historical documents in the same way as, say, a letter from Alexander Hamilton. However, they allow students to ask the same critical questions that they should ask of any primary source: Who created this? What was the context? What was the creator’s intention? What can you learn from examining this?

Teaching Ideas

  • Look at the drafts of the founding documents and compare them to the final copies. Identify significant changes between the documents, and speculate as to how the nation might have been different if those changes had not been made.
  • As you study issues in U.S. history, use THOMAS to find and examine recent legislative documents on the same topic—for example, immigration, poverty, the role of religion in politics. Identify whether the recent documents use similar language or persuasive techniques as the historical documents, or if approaches to the topic have changed in the intervening years.

Additional Library of Congress Resources

Use the Library’s Teacher Guides and Analysis Tool to guide students through analysis of these primary sources.

How have you used THOMAS or historical legal documents in your teaching?


  1. I would love to see more exhibits on this. Years ago the Archives had one on civil rights. That’s where I learned that during slavery the House had a rule forbidding discussing it on the floor and that the reason the 1964 Civil Rights Act includes sex as a basis for unlawful discrimination was that opponents of the bill offered the amendment as a poison pill.

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