Examples Of Good Thesis Statements For History

A research essay cannot simply report on historical events or ideas, it must have a particular point. The reader wants to know, “Why am I reading this?” “What is the author arguing here?” You may think about it in this way: a prosecuting attorney would not simply present a host of evidence to a jury without arguing a particular case. The evidence itself does not constitute an argument – it must be presented to the reader after they have been advised of the argument, or “charges” at hand. When formulating a thesisstatement, consider the kinds of questions that students typically have:

  • What is a thesis? A thesis is the central, core argument being made by the author. The thesis should provide the research paper with a point, or reason for presenting the evidence uncovered during the investigation of the topic. It is the “case” being made for the consideration of the jury of the author’s peers. Writing a paper without a thesis is like reviewing evidence without prosecuting a case – the reader will be confused and may even grow irritated, and will question the author’s point.
  • Are a thesis statement and an introduction the same thing? No, they are not, however the thesis, or statement of the author’s argument, is expected by the reader to appear early in the paper – in the introduction, or very soon thereafter. The introduction presents the topic to the audience, defines the subject, period, and event or ideas to be discussed. The thesis statement makes clear to the reader exactly what is being argued by the author.

When formulating a thesis statement, the author should consider the following angles:

  • What is it about this topic that is problematic? Many topics are naturally problem-based, and are readily debatable. Determining on which side of the debate you stand can lead to the formulation of an argument. Other subjects involve causal relationships between events. These subjects are often chronologically oriented, and while there may be several competing schools of thought on why a particular event took place in the way it did, you may see one or two of them as primary. Focusing upon them and arguing for their preeminence as causal factors would constitute a thesis for your paper.
  • Do I agree with the scholarship? Determining where you stand on the chosen topic can be a starting point when developing an argument. Some topics are widely documented, but their sources may disagree with one another or present contrasting hypotheses or explanations. Some sources are much more recent than other works of prior scholarship, and they may involve revised or “revisionist” theories. Examine them carefully. Are you convinced by the newer approaches to a particular topic? Are they based upon newly discovered evidence that you find persuasive?
  • Are there specific themes within this topic that I can investigate? Many topics, such as wars, social or political revolutions, or aspects of societal change, involve many different actors or agents. You may wish to examine such a topic by focusing upon a particular sub-theme such as the role of women or minorities, the state of political or gender relations, or the influence of science and technology. This can be further explored in light of causative or consequential effects – that is, how did the actors or agents affect events, or how did the events affect the actors?
  • Can the evidence that I have uncovered support the claim I am making? It would be wise to consider the evidence you have found during your investigation and weigh it objectively before writing your essay. Devising an argument before fully considering the material could lead to an unexpected discovery: your argument is flawed or unsupportable. Working in reverse order to substantiate an uncertain argument is the equivalent of finding your suspect guilty or innocent before deciding on the case you wish to make. Read your sources critically, and take careful notes of what you have discovered. These notes will become crucial to the formulation of your thesis, or case. After you have made your initial determination and formulated an argument, these notes will then help you to form the body of your essay. The more notes you have, and the more carefully you have kept track of the key evidence you have uncovered, the more easily you will be able to construct and link together the main points of your paper.

January 2007. Revised June 2011.

Thesis statements—the presentation of a thesis in the introduction of a work—can take many forms, so long as they pose a question and offer an interpretive answer. [1] Though I do not want to confine my students to formulas, here is one that may help them remember the key elements:

Why did [person/persons] [do/say/write something surprising]? [Plausible explanation], but in fact [better or more complete explanation].

For example:

Why did Americans reject public housing except as an option of last resort? Given the popularity of homeownership today, one might think that Americans have always insisted on owning their own homes. But in fact, some Americans preferred quality public housing to home ownership, and only strong efforts by the housing industry and conservative politicians foreclosed this option. [2]

Or, more loosely:

What did Herman Melville mean when he wrote that “warriors/ Are now but operatives”? Official sources, newspaper accounts, and subsequent histories have presented the USS Monitor solely as a symbol of American technological success, but Melville understood machinery’s ability to dehumanize warfare. [3]

Or:

Why did Americans become more concerned about the environment in the decades after World War II? Though a growing concern about the loss of wilderness obviously contributed to the rise of environmentalism, the movement also was a response to environmental change at the edges of the nation”s cities. [4]

I even found an essay that uses the form almost exactly as it appears here:

How did Syria come to this pass? While some observers see in recent events a parallel with 1989, with the break-up of the East European–style system introduced by the Baathists in the 1960s, this is no velvet revolution, nor is Syria like Jaruzelski’s Poland. The regime’s violence is not ideological. It is far from being the result of an emotional or philosophical commitment to a party that long ago abandoned its agenda of promoting secular Arab republican values and aspirations. The regime’s ruthless attachment to power lies in a complex web of tribal loyalties and networks of patronage underpinned by a uniquely powerful religious bond. [5]

Let’s take a look at the components of this form:
1. Why? History theses answer the question, why, or, occasionally, how. Who, what, where, and when are important too, but why and how make an argument. [6]
2. Person/persons. History is about people. Abstract nouns (capitalism, war, society, etc.) are important, but a thesis without people lacks life.
3. Something surprising. The function of any scholarship is to explore the unknown and the mysterious. Challenge yourself with difficult questions.
4. Plausible explanation. A good way to know that you have formed a good question is if it forces you to choose among interpretations. The question, who wrote “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor”s Fight”? has only one right answer (Herman Melville). The question, why did Melville write “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor”s Fight”? has many plausible answers. Like the second example, the most thorough theses note exactly who believes or believed an alternative explanation.
5. Better or more complete explanation. Not all answers are equally good. Some are plain wrong; they cannot be supported with evidence (Melville was trying to impress Adah Isaacs Menken). Others account for some, but not all, of the available evidence (Americans were impressed by the power of the Monitor). The task of a thesis is to show that your explanation explains words or deeds that were not explained before.
Not all good thesis statements need to take this particular form, but most good theses present all of these elements. Show that your argument can explain more evidence than can a rival, and you have yourself a thesis.


For more on developing a thesis, see “Elements of a Thesis Statement” and “Dialectical Thesis Statements.”
[1] For all their classroom talk of concise thesis statements, academic historians generally spread the statement of their own theses over several paragraphs at the start of an article or several pages of the introduction of a book. Thus, if you want to find a compact thesis statement, you are better off reading historiographical essays or book reviews that summarize the arguments of other works.
Here I have borrowed the idea of a thesis-statement template from the “magic thesis” presented by the UCLA Office of Instructional Development, http://write.oid.ucla.edu/handouts/Thesis_statement_history.rtf(August 8, 2006).
[2] Adapted from Gail Radford, Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 6.
[3] Adapted from David A. Mindell, “’The Clangor of That Blacksmith”s Fray”: Technology, War, and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor,” Technology and Culture 36 (April 1995), 242-245.
[4] The second sentence is a direct quotation from Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 7. It is one of six thesis statements Rome presents in his introduction (pages 7-12), each beginning with the word “though” and taking the form of a weighing of two alternative explanations.
[5] Malise Ruthven, “Storm Over Syria,” New York Review of Books, 9 June 2011.
[6] A remaining question—what is to be done?—is of great interest in other disciplines, but historians answer it only under duress. Others want to change the world; our task is to interpret it.

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