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Here's a sample essay that contains a clear thesis, reasonable analysis, and enough historical proof to ring the test grader's bell.
Democracy Comes to the United States in the Jackson Era
Thesis: Although important issues like slavery and states' rights remained unresolved, the period from the 1820s to the 1840s, known as the Jackson era, was a time when the United States began to move toward being true to its democratic ideals. This era saw the increase in the power of ordinary people in political, economic and social areas. These power changes were brought home to people through Religious and Moral Reform movements and through Political Campaigns that were conducted on a large public scale for the first time. Citizens began to see themselves as having real freedom to change their own lives and the course of the nation in which they lived.
The most important political event was the introduction of white Universal Male Suffrage in most states in the early 1820s. Although it was a far cry from the voting rights we enjoy now, it was an unimagined freedom in earlier days, when voting was limited by property, class, and race. The newly enfranchised citizens responded by increasing Voter Turnout by large numbers. People began to see themselves as more powerful, not just as the pawns of destiny. Greater democracy spelled the end of leaders selected by small elites and the beginning of the election of popular national leaders like Andrew Jackson in 1848 and 1832. Even the Spoils System can be seen as a democratization of public employment.
The Second Great Awakening increased social as well as spiritual growth by getting people together away from the farm in newly organized religious congregations. These congregations in turn provided a religious base for small but growing Temperance, Abolitionist, and Women's Suffrage movements. The era ended with a symbolically important women's meeting at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Even an event that we now view as negative, such as the Trail of Tears removal of American Indians from the South, had its beginning in increased public social pressure for land.
Economics are never far from any social or political change. The birth of the Industrial Revolution with factory jobs offered urban alternatives to rural isolation. The rising price of Cotton and Slaves brought prosperity to Southerners and their Northern financiers. Rapidly improving transportation by Canal, Railroad, and Steamship made the sale of crops and manufactured goods into the beginning of a National Economy. Transportation allowed ordinary people to move where they wanted to go to seek a new fortune. Even the Nullification Crisis, with its argument about tariffs, was a sign of the economic strain on sectionalism brought by an increasingly powerful National Interest.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," most of his upper-class congressional colleagues could recognize the theory of freedom only as it applied to them and people of their class. Most common people could not vote and had no time for economic and social betterment. That's why the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College and chose senators and presidents in private meetings. But with the new nation, the theory of freedom had become an ideal. As reform improved the power of ordinary people, those people were more likely to use their power to improve social, political, and economic life. The era of Jacksonian Democracy, with its emphasis on personal beliefs and more universal suffrage, brought the idea of freedom that had begun in the American Revolution to reality: the beginnings of real democracy in the United States.
Apparently, some people studied even less for their history exams than your slacker friends. Here are some essay responses gone terribly wrong:
"It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented removable type and the Bible. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Walter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes and started smoking. And Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100 foot clipper.
Later, the Pilgrims crossed the ocean, and this was called Pilgrim's Progress. The winter of 1620 was a hard one for the settlers. Many people died and many babies were born. Captain John Smith was responsible for all this.
One of the causes of the Revolutionary War was the English put tacks in their tea. Also, the colonists would send their parcels through the post without stamps. Finally the colonists won the War and no longer had to pay for taxis. Delegates from the original 13 states formed the Contented Congress. Thomas Jefferson, a Virgin, and Benjamin Franklin were two singers of the Declaration of Independence. Franklin discovered electricity by rubbing two cats backwards and declared, "A horse divided against itself cannot stand." Franklin died in 1790 and is still dead.
Soon the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility. Under the constitution the people enjoyed the right to keep bare arms.
Abraham Lincoln became America's greatest Precedent. His mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves by signing the Emasculation Proclamation.
The nineteenth century was a time of a great many thoughts and inventions. People stopped reproducing by hand and started reproducing by machine. The invention of the steamboat caused a network of rivers to spring up.
World War I broke out around 1912-1914. Germany was on one side of France and Russia was on the other. At war people get killed, and then they aren't people any more, but friends. Peace was proclaimed at Versigh, which was attended by George Loid, Primal Minister of England. President Wilson arrived with 14 pointers."