American History as It Happened

MODULE ONE: 1865–1877


Directions: The following prompt asks you to write a well-organized, concise essay that integrates your interpretation of Documents One through Seven and your knowledge of the period referred to in the question. The best answers will not only cite key pieces of evidence from the documents but also include outside knowledge of the period.

DBQ: Explain why Reconstruction was such a complex, difficult task for the federal government after the Civil War ended.

Based on the question and the documents, students might come up with a thesis along these lines:

THESIS: Reconstruction was an enormously challenging and difficult task for the federal government because the primacy of federal law was not accepted by a significant percentage of the white population in the defeated Confederate states. White Southerners’ pervasive racial prejudice and frequent attempts to keep black people from exercising their civil rights defied the US government’s ability to enforce the law.

EXAMPLES of supporting arguments that could be derived from documents:

Document One: White Southerners were vehemently opposed to giving black people voting rights. They believed “the negro was not fit to vote” and that doing so would “put the negro and the white man on an equality.”

Document Two: Secessionists had rejected the authority of the US government, and that attitude did not disappear after the South was defeated. The task facing the victorious Union was to address that resistance and “familiarize the mass of [southern white] people with the idea of law as an irresistible power to which all must bow, and which throws just the same amount of protection over the meanest as well as the proudest black or white.” This article goes on to say, “Whatever military force may be necessary to afford to every freeman, of whatever color, the protection which the Constitution guarantees him, in person and property, we must maintain.”

Document Three: Despite the claims of loyalty to the federal government that some offered after the war, white southerners undertook vigorous initiatives to prevent African Americans from exercising their civil rights, with a key effort being the subversion of black people’s education, “hindering them from learning to read.”

Document Four: White southerners made it clear that they would use violence to keep freed blacks from achieving social equality or political rights: “There will prevail at the South for a long time to come a great deal of envy, hatred, and malice towards the colored population and they will show themselves in riots and outrages more or less flagrant.” In addition, local law-enforcement officials could not be depended on to uphold federal law during attacks: “[T]he local police, if they interfered at all, would interfere” to support the attackers.

Documents Five and Six: The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution provided that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Despite the amendment, the Nation article written in May 1870 points out that “There are so many ways of cheating people out of their votes, and there are so many voters whom it is easy to cheat, that we may be sure, in a large number of places, negroes would, by one trick or other, be robbed of their share in elections, no matter how solemnly guaranteed to them by the Constitution.”

Document Seven: White supremacists organized vigilante groups to undermine the goals of Reconstruction. The most notable group was the Ku Klux Klan, which “committed many most bloody and hateful outrages” against African Americans across the South.

Here are examples from the documents that a student might offer that would fit the question:

  • White southerners expressed and acted on a lack of loyalty to the Union and disregard for federal laws (2, 3, 4, 5, 7)
  • Racial prejudice by white southerners was frequently directed against black people (1, 4, 7)
  • Violence or threats of violence and of rebellion were deployed in an attempt to stop Reconstruction efforts (1, 3, 4, 7)
  • White southerners took action to prevent black people from exercising their civil and/or voting rights (1, 3, 5, 7)






The specifics above will help you determine if students have responded to the DBQ with appropriate information. In addition, the College Board offers the following comments on what characteristics define an excellent response to a DBQ prompt.

An excellent DBQ essay should do all the following:

  • Contain an evaluative thesis that establishes the student’s argument and responds to the question. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place, either in the introduction or the conclusion. Neither the introduction nor the conclusion is necessarily limited to a single paragraph.
  • Describe a broader historical context immediately relevant to the question that relates the topic of the question to historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or after the time frame of the question. This description should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
  • Explain how at least one additional piece of specific historical evidence, beyond those found in the documents, relates to an argument about the question. (This example must be different from the evidence used to earn the point for contextualization.) This explanation should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
  • Use historical reasoning to explain relationships among the pieces of evidence provided in the response and how they corroborate, qualify, or modify the argument, made in the thesis, that addresses the entirety of the question. In addition, a good response should utilize the content of at least six documents to support an argument about the question.
  • Explain, for at least four of the documents, how point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to the argument.

For more guidance about evaluating responses to a DBQ essay, download this PDF, which includes scoring guidelines.