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The adoption of Common Core State Standards presents the social studies with an opportunity and a challenge


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Susan B. Anthony’s trial, social justice, and Common Core connections.



The adoption of Common Core State Standards presents the social studies with an opportunity and a challenge. Common Core State Standards focus on college and career readiness. The focus on college and career readiness is a challenge because the civic education goal of social studies may be lost or overlooked. The opportunity is that social studies is one of those other areas that must be used to help develop literacy. The goal of this paper is to discuss how to use social studies texts, specifically primary sources related to Susan B. Anthony’s trial, to meet literacy and social studies goals.            


The adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) presents the social studies with both a challenge and an opportunity. The CCSS’ focus on college and career readiness by improving students’ literacy skills presents a challenge in that the civic education goal of social studies may be lost or overlooked. For example, the literacy component in history/social studies standards of the CCSS aims to develop students’ literacy skills, rather than promote history or social studies goals. Nevertheless, the opportunity the CCSS provides to social studies educators is that social studies is one area that may be used to develop students’ literacy skills. Therefore, the goal of this paper is to discuss how to use social studies texts, specifically primary sources, to meet both literacy and social studies goals.

College and career readiness is an important goal, and all teachers should be included in reaching these goals. However, as social studies teachers, we need to focus on and protect our primary mission: citizenship education. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) (2010) identifies the aim of social studies as developing and promoting citizenship. The challenge is that social studies’ aims can be lost or subordinated to literacy goals during implementation of the CCSS. In this article, we adopt the stance that our task as social studies teachers is to promote civic competence through quality social studies instruction, while supporting overall literacy goals. We also believe that the tools and concepts of academic disciplines can be used to promote civic competence.


Using Disciplinary Tools and Concepts to Promote Civic Competence


                The connection between the concepts and tools of the humanities and social sciences and social or civic education goals is not new. Dewey (1916) wrote, “The true starting point of history is always some present situation with its problems” (p. 214).  The idea was that the study of the past using historical tools and inquiry can help students understand the problems of the present. When our students understand the problems of the present they have a better chance of participating in the development of potential solutions to these problems.

Beard (1933) extended on Dewey’s ideas when discussing the role of the social sciences in the schools. In his discussion of civic education in schools, he explained that the social sciences can provide elementary and secondary schools the skills used to acquire and analyze information. When students possess the skills and habits of the social scientist, they are more likely to develop into citizens who can function in and strengthen a democratic society. Beard included the development of criticism and imagination in students as important to civic competence. This is where disciplinary skills and concepts help develop students who have a balanced respect for society that includes awareness that there are problems that can and should be addressed.

Recent scholarship has focused on the need to teach students specific disciplinary skills and concepts including how historians analyze and use primary sources. Ruddell (2008) contended that learning the “discourses associated with a specific subject area … is a critical aspect of success in school” (p. 6). Historians employ specific heuristics when dealing with primary sources, and Wineburg (1991) has done much research that helped to identify the ways that historians employ these heuristics when examining primary sources. He identified three specific heuristics that historian use: (a) corroboration, (b) sourcing, and (c) contextualization (Wineburg, 1991). In an effort to translate the skills and concepts of the historian into the secondary classroom, Reisman (2012) developed a structure to help teachers instruct students on how to analyze historical documents. The goal of all this scholarship was to bring the disciplinary specific skills and concepts of historians into elementary and secondary schools.

Although there is disagreement about the definition and nature of social studies, throughout the history of social studies as a discipline, it has maintained a focus on civic competence, and in spite of efforts to create a unified field, it has maintained its disciplinary divisions (Chapin, 2013; Evans, 2004; Guidry, 2011; Nelson, 1916/1994; Ross, 2006; Thornton, 2005). Though NCSS defines social studies as an integrated or unified field, the recently published C3 Framework recognizes that the academic disciplines that make up social studies provide discipline-specific tools and concepts that can be used to develop skills that are essential to civic competence (NCSS, 2013).

Our goal, as social studies teachers and as teachers of the CCSS, is to implement instruction that uses disciplinary tools and concepts from the field of history, to make social studies instruction more rigorous, more student focused, and more authentic. We believe that teachers can use primary sources to reach the literacy goals of the CCSS, as well as the civic education goal of social studies. This integration is an excellent way to successfully wed the two aims. In this article, we discuss how to use primary sources, using the trial of Susan B. Anthony for illegally voting in the 1872 Presidential election as an example, to meet both literacy and social studies goals using the CCSS.

Using Primary Sources in the Classroom


Many teachers are wary of incorporating primary sources into their instructional practice. They feel they lack the experience, knowledge, and support to find, plan for, and use primary sources in the classroom. The Library of Congress (n.d. b) Teaching with Primary Sources website,, has many resources to help teachers and students find and analyze primary sources. On the website there are collections of primary sources, as well as analysis sheets that teachers can use with their students. Wesson (2011) provided a description of primary sources, which teachers might find beneficial when planning instruction that includes the use of primary sources:


“Primary sources” are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience. Students will most often work with primary sources that have been digitized. (para. 2)


The Library of Congress (n.d. c) says, “Primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period” (para. 1). They also (a) “engage students,” (b) “develop critical thinking skills,” and (c) “construct knowledge” (Library of Congress, n.d. c, para. 3, 5, 7). To help teachers and students use primary sources in the classroom, there are a variety of tools for analyzing primary sources on the Library of Congress (n.d. a) website,


Moving Beyond the Textbook with Primary Sources


In history and social studies textbooks, many topics and events are glossed over, omitted, or barely mentioned. As a result, students do not develop a deep understanding of historical events. In order to combat this issue, teachers must supplement their textbook-based instruction. To do this, we can use primary sources in conjunction with the CCSS. Primary sources provide students with a wider perspective of history because students learn detailed information about events through their analysis of these sources. Students can corroborate information from multiple sources (Wineburg, 1991) to form a more comprehensive understanding of  historical events instead of simply reading facts in a textbook. In addition, students can employ the heuristics of sourcing and contextualization to evaluate the reliability of the information presented in the primary sources and textbooks and situate the event in the appropriate context (Wineburg, 1991), rather than accept the information in textbooks as the only interpretation. Therefore, when students engage in historical analysis with primary sources, they develop a more sophisticated and deeper understanding of history.  We base our argument on Clausewitz’s (1832/1989) four uses for historical events as examples. He wrote that people use historical examples for four main reasons:


  1. Explanation of an idea – to make an abstract idea concrete.
  2. Application of an idea – used for proof of the efficacy of an idea.
  3. Support a statement – prove the possibility of some phenomena or effect.
  4. Support a doctrine or theory – “detailed presentation of a historical event” to prove a theory through deduction. (Clausewitz, 1832/1989, p. 170-174)


Textbooks generally focus on the first two reasons, which only touch lightly on a historical event and cause problems when an event is new to students. Because they do not know enough about the subject, students will (a) accept poorly formulated or weakly supported ideas, (b) develop erroneous understandings, or (c) fail to grasp the significance of an event. Clausewitz (1832/1989) advocated the detailed study of an event, because it is “more instructive than ten that are only touched on” (p. 173). In other words, to get value from historical examples and events, teachers must teach in ways that enable students to learn a “detailed presentation” of some historical events (Clausewitz, 1832/1989, p. 171). One way for us to do this is through primary sources.


Using the Trial of Susan B. Anthony


One event that is rarely mentioned in United States history texts is the trial of Susan B. Anthony for illegally voting in the 1872 Presidential election. A review of five eighth-grade United States history textbooks showed that none mentioned this event. In the most recent textbook reviewed, America: History of our Nation, Davidson (2014) included 173 words in the passage about Anthony:


With seven children to care for, Elizabeth Cady Stanton still found time to try to change the world. She began her long political partnership with Susan B. Anthony in 1851. For much of the next 50 years, the two women pooled their talents to try to win women the right to vote. “(I am) a fine writer,” Stanton noted. “Miss Anthony is a thorough manager.”

In the years after the Seneca Falls Convention, Susan B. Anthony became a close ally of Stanton. The two made a dynamic team. As an unmarried woman, Anthony was free to travel and devote herself to reform work. Stanton, the mother of a growing family, more often wrote speeches from her home. Together, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.

The fight for women’s suffrage made little progress at first. Yet the women’s rights movement won some victories. In 1860, Stanton and Anthony convinced New York to pass a law protecting women’s property rights. Many other states followed. Some states revised their laws to allow married women to keep their wages. (pp. 428-429)


In addition, the other textbooks included 33 words (Davidson & Underwood, 1992), 50 words (Davidson, 2005), 272 words (Stuckey & Salvucci, 2005), and 137 words (Appleby, Brinkley, Broussard, McPherson, & Ritchie, 2005) about Susan B. Anthony. The argument is not that there should be more or less about Susan B. Anthony in these texts.  Our point is that like many topics in United States history texts, the topic is not covered in detail. Rather than view this situation as a problem, we believe this provides an opportunity to use primary sources to help students develop a more detailed understanding of an event.

Because the illegal vote was not mentioned in any of the eighth grade texts reviewed, we use an excerpt from a college text, The Enduring Vision, as our prompt. In a discussion of the suffrage movement in the 1870s, Boyer et al. (2011) wrote, “When Susan B. Anthony mobilized about seventy women to vote nationwide in 1872, she was indicted, convicted, and fined” (p. 476). This is a factual statement, but a “detailed presentation” of the entire event provides a multitude of opportunities for our students (Clausewitz, 1832/1989, p. 171). For example, students can go beyond the light touches of history and simple memorization of the fact that Anthony voted illegally in the 1872 election to do what Thornton (2005) emphasized was the main goal of social studies—“the  cultivation of good citizenship” (p. 22). Our students can do this by tangling with primary sources about Anthony’s trial.


Tangling with Primary Sources about the Trial


How do we create a situation in which our students tangle with primary sources? First, students could be provided or encouraged to find documents related to the trial of Susan B. Anthony for voting illegally in the 1872 election. Using the CCSS and focusing on social studies objectives from the appropriate state social studies frameworks, a teacher can help her students create their own “detailed presentation” (Clausewitz, 1832/1989, p. 171) of the event and learn important knowledge, skills, or dispositions that contribute to effective citizenship.

Linder (2014) at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law created a website of “Famous Trials” that can be accessed at Included are secondary accounts with supporting primary sources of many famous trials from the trial of Socrates to the trial of Charles Manson. This website is a valuable tool for social studies teachers. Students and teachers can find trials that interest them from a variety of places and historical periods. One of the trials is the trial of Susan B. Anthony in 1873. On the website is information about Susan B. Anthony’s life, her career as a suffragette, speeches and letters written by Anthony about her vote and other issues, and the complete trial record. Additionally, there are cartoons from contemporary newspapers that criticize Susan B. Anthony and the idea of woman’s suffrage.

For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on three specific documents found on the site related to the trial: (a) “Susan B. Anthony’s letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton about the vote,” (b) “Arguments over the Court’s directing a verdict in the Case of United States vs. Susan B. Anthony & Jury Verdict,” and (c) “Sentencing in the Case of United States vs. Susan B. Anthony.” Tangling with