Top of page

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

Share this post:

This post is cross posted on the blog of the Law Library of Congress, In Custodia Legis. In Custodia Legis is an excellent source of information on current legal trends and materials from the Library’s collections pertaining to the law.

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 the 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, Library of Congress lesson plans on the Constitution and Bill of Rights let them ask critical questions of the documents and their authors, as they consider 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 might be. 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 hadn’t been made.
  • As you study issues in U.S. history, use THOMAS to find and examine recent legislative documents on the same topic—immigration, poverty, the role of religion in politics, for example. 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 am a high school librarian and I found this blog very useful. I am passing it in on to our U.S. Government teacher.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.