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To What Extent was Reconstruction a Revolution?

by on January 14, 2014

Reconstruction was a tumultuous period in American history, and the question of whether it produced lasting change in regard to civil rights is still debated by scholars. A DocsTeach Activity using primary sources allows your students to enter the debate and develop critical thinking skills by evaluating historical congressional records as historians.

Available on, the National Archives resource for teachers, the classroom activity engages students in analyzing documents that illustrate multiple perspectives on the Reconstruction era. The students form hypotheses about the amount of change depicted, and support their interpretations verbally or in writing. Students can work on this activity in small groups, in pairs, or individually. This activity works best at the conclusion of a unit of study on the era.

Begin by introducing the guiding question, seen above as the title of this post, and initiating a class discussion to define the term “revolution.” Pose questions such as: What is a revolution? What other topics have students studied that were called revolutions? What features made them revolutionary? What might you expect to see if a revolution indeed occurred? How significant must change be in order to be called revolutionary? Can a revolution affect some aspects of society and leave others untouched? How quickly must change occur to be considered revolutionary? How long must significant change last in order to be called revolutionary? Encourage students to draw from their responses to these questions throughout this activity.

House Joint Resolution proposing the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, December 7, 1868; from the General Records of the United States Government

House Joint Resolution proposing the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, December 7, 1868; from the General Records of the United States Government (The amendment was ratified by the states on February 3, 1870)

When students have formed definitions for revolution, begin Part 1 of the DocsTeach Activity. In it, the students will evaluate seven primary source documents and assess the extent to which each illustrates revolutionary change. Using the Weighing the Evidence tool, students will place the documents on a scale to indicate their assessment that “Yes, the changes which occurred in the nation amount to a revolution” or “No, the changes which occurred in the nation fell short of revolutionary.” As the documents are placed on the scale, the balance will tip to visually demonstrate which assessment has the most supporting evidence. When all the documents have been analyzed, students will answer the guiding question—to what extent was Reconstruction a revolution?—using examples from the documents to support their answer.

DocsTeach screenshot

Part 2 of the lesson employs the Spotlight feature of the Focusing on the Details tool. The students view an image of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which highlights the full name of the act—“An Act to Enforce the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Ask students to compare the date of this document to the date of the constitutional amendment it was created to enforce. Why did this document come 95 years after the 15th Amendment? Was it part of the same revolution as Reconstruction? Or is it part of a new revolution? Was there a revolution? Does this document change your answer to the guiding question? Why or why not?

DocsTeach screenshot


Was Reconstruction a Revolution? (Part 1) is available from DocsTeach at Part 2 is available at

A version of this lesson is also available from the National Archives’ Center for Legislative Archives.

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