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Answering the Reconstruction DBQ

The secret to successful DBQ essays is using both the documents presented and relevant outside information from the period covered by the documents. To do this successfully, you need to have a plan. That plan is based on the PAT method for scoring high on essay questions (refer to the earlier section "PAT: A Strategy for Answering Document-Based Questions").

Taking notes in the question book

First, the proof. The question book that contains your essay challenges and documents is also the place for you to make notes during the AP exam. Use the essay-writing booklet only for your essays; make notes in the question book.

Read the DBQ question twice. The second time through, carefully circle the key words in the assignment:

Before you even read the documents, list proof by making notes in the question book about themes and events you remember from this period. You're going to use these events as proof to support the thesis that forms the backbone of your DBQ essay. You're wise to record your outside history knowledge before the documents distract you from what you already know.

Now read the documents. Circle the most important points in each primary source. You'll weave references to each of several documents in your essay. To make your writing more than a list of the documents, show how each reference supports your central point. For maximum impact, base your essay on a thesis, analyzed in at least three main points and defended with proof from both your outside history knowledge and the documents.

Using analysis

After you have your outside history knowledge written down and your document proof circled in the question book, you're ready to proceed to an analysis of the question which will produce your thesis. Read the question one last time, paying careful attention to the words you circled.

Winning points with the test grader

Historians like to argue about events and trends that are old enough to have developed some proof. Can't decide who should win the next election? That's nothing to historians, who are still arguing about the causes of World War I. You need to remember two things about the person who grades your DBQ: She'll be overwhelmed by piles of tests, and she'll be a historian. When historians don't agree about causes (which is usually), they love to argue about trends and documents. For extra credit with your historian-grader, join in the professional discussion by doing these things:

- Defining your terms clearly: In the sample question cited, an essay might start with "The term 'Reconstruction' has been used to signify the formal programs enacted by the United States government from the period following the end of the Civil War and including the period up until 1877 during which the national government maintained troops in the South. It can also mean the social and political changes including but not limited to government programs during that period. In this essay, I am using the term 'Reconstruction' in the second sense to include all social and political changes." Defining terms is the first step in most professional writing.

- Admitting that the other side may have a point counter to your thesis and then attacking that point with analysis: This method is called the straw-man argument. Don't think that you need to neglect documents that seem to run counter to your thesis. You can deal with seemingly contrary proof through analysis and gain extra test grader credit. If you have the time, analyze the documents by date and author to show how the author's social bias fits into an ongoing cultural trend; this strategy always impresses historians.

- Not reaching for facts of which you are unsure: When a teacher is grading lots of papers fast, he naturally notices a fact that is clearly wrong. This could be something as small as saying Federal troops were withdrawn under Reconstruction in 1879 instead of the correct date of 1877. Unfortunately for the test taker, teachers often note finding even a minor factual error by marking down a major decrease in score. If you're not sure of a name or year, use a generality such as the president or around this time. Never quote directly from a document; summarize.

For the Reconstruction question, your thesis might be

The North's initially tough Reconstruction rules provided some protection for blacks in the South but caused a violent reaction from white Southerners threatened by change. Northerners with their own political agendas were unwilling to maintain strict Reconstruction enforcement. In 1877, 12 years after the end of the Civil War, the last Northern troops were withdrawn from the South, leaving Southern blacks free but segregated, with little political or economic opportunity.

This thesis becomes the first paragraph of your five- or six-paragraph DBQ essay. The second paragraph could talk about the angry retribution with which the North applied Reconstruction immediately after the Civil War. It could show that the North came within one vote of impeaching its own Union President after Andrew Johnson opposed tough measures by the Radical Republicans.

You should cite documents clearly in brackets, like this:

After the war, even black Union soldiers who had fought bravely were treated badly in the South by their own white officers [Document A]. This demonstrates the ongoing racism after the war of even Northern officers.


Bracket all references to documents, but don't waste time copying the titles of the documents. The reader who grades your essay is an expert on this specific DBQ question; she has seen hundreds of essays on this year's DBQ and she knows the document letters by heart.

Don't just refer to the documents as if you were trying to prove you can list them all. Show how they support your thesis. Weave documentary evidence throughout your essay on Reconstruction as proof of your thesis. Some documents require explanation to show that you understand them. For the DBQ, you're trying to show that you can analyze an era by using primary source documents; you're not just proving that you can read by spouting back what the documents say. It can even be good to cite documents that do not seem to support your thesis if you can show that they are biased by their source.

Here are some examples from the supplied documents:

Grant's speech [Document D] suggests that the first elected President after the Civil War was sincere but even-handed in enforcing the law.

Union Soldiers [Document A] and Crippens [Document F] record the level of violence against blacks (even from the North) which often went unreported in the contemporary press.

Sumner [Document C] shows the strong feeling for strict enforcement of civil justice in the South coming from Northern Republicans immediately after the war.

Grading the AP U.S. History exam

During one week in June of each year, more than 1,000 determined history teachers and professors gather at a college, usually in Texas, to grade more than 1 million AP U.S. History essays. About 400,000 students take this test — traditionally the largest single-subject College Board test in the world. Each student writes three essays, and all of these 1.2 million essays must be graded by hand.

If the teachers grade 1,000 essays each and spend 2 minutes reading and scoring each essay, the job will take them 33 hours of solid work. With training, consultation, and occasional breaks, that's a very full week. Some of the most experienced graders arrive early to serve as coordinators. These super-specialists develop specific criteria for each of the five exam questions. Coordinators and regular graders specialize in only one question; they learn the grading criteria for their question and stick to it.

The upside to this specialization is that each of your essays will be read by a different, custom-trained person who is guaranteed to completely understand the question. The downside is that if your answer is trying to hide the fact that you do not understand, your grader has seen it all a hundred times before. Leaders double-check a random sample of each grader's work to keep the grading consistent and fair.

Even as hard as they try, graders can make mistakes. If you're sure you've been given a much lower score than you deserve, you can pay the College Board a few extra dollars to have an independent reader rescore your test. No one has yet complained about getting too high a score.

Bringing in outside proof

To get the highest grade on the DBQ essay, you need to bring in as much as half the evidence from outside the supplied documents. Any outside evidence is good, so highlight what you have. For this Reconstruction DBQ, you want to mention as outside proof items like the following:

- The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution ended slavery and intended to give equal protection of the law and the vote to all males.

- In economics, Reconstruction saw the end of the Southern plantation economy and the beginning of sharecropping. You might mention how that changed the South. The North's industrial base continued to grow, and its own economy drew Northern attention away from trouble in the South.

- The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 didn't actually overturn Black Code laws in the South; the Supreme Court limited the application of this early civil-rights legislation to only national laws. Southern states later adopted Jim Crow laws to further limit the rights of blacks.

- Under early Reconstruction rules, former slaves — but not Confederate leaders — could vote in Southern state elections. Southern blacks helped pass important social legislation, including the establishment of public schools for all citizens. After the Southern states officially rejoined the Union, local white officials made their own laws and quickly found ways to keep blacks from voting.

- President Hayes agreed to withdraw all troops from the South in 1877 as part of a deal to win a disputed election.

- The Ku Klux Klan and other groups orchestrated repressive violence against blacks in the South.

- In reaction to what it viewed as harsh Reconstruction pushed by Republicans, the Solid South voted Democratic for 75 years until the early 1960s. When the Democratic Party sided with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, it did so knowing that Democratic politicians would lose the votes of what had been called the "Solid South." Reconstruction and its aftermath affect U.S. politics to this day.

The length of a DBQ response should be five or six paragraphs. The first paragraph states the thesis; the last paragraph reiterates the thesis and proof. The middle paragraphs provide point-by-point analysis, supported by document citations and outside information.


Underline the names of all outside information and dates, like this: Solid South, Civil Rights Bill of 1866, Jim Crow. This method helps make sure that test graders clearly see the outside information you're submitting. Test readers score so many essays so quickly that they have only a minute to see information you've spent months absorbing.

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