Thesis and Argument: Setting the Context

Setting the Context

At the beginning of a history essay, the author should provide historical context to frame the topic for the reader. The context should provide the reader with a brief introduction to the time, place, and significance of events discussed in the essay. This context precedes the thesis statement and frames the larger argument. 

Some Things To Consider 

  • Temporal context: Situates the essay in a particular time period, and amidst other events of the period.

  • Spatial context: Situates the essay in a specific location-- local, national, and/or international.

  • Discursive context: Situates the essay in the larger conversation or historical debate on the topic (historiography).

  • ¨Present context: (Proceed with caution!) Connects the essay to present concerns and creates relationships between the past and present.

Student Problems

  • Step 1:  Start BROAD. – Provide background information to set the historical context.

    Set the context:

  • Specific time period and location

  • Specific historical events/major ideas of the time period

  • Discuss the who, what, when, where, why surrounding your topic.

  • Answers the question, WHY is your topic important in the big picture of history?

  • Step 2:  Get more SPECIFIC. Include an example to illustrate your thesis.

    Step 3:  Write your THESIS.  

Example 1: 


An essay that includes this 1830 letter (authored by President Andrew Jackson to John Pitchlynn, a U.S. official for the Choctaw Agency) as evidence may include a an introduction that references and addresses:

  • Historical context (time, events, place, and people): Indian Removal Act, Choctaw Nation, Choctaw Agency, Trail of Tears, Manifest Destiny, treaties, Constitution of the Choctaw Nation, settlers, westward migration, territories, President Andrew Jackson, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Cherokee Nation, Homestead Act
  • Historical significance: citizenship, sovereignty, race and ethnicity, imperialism, Manifest Destiny, nativism, vanishing Indian, genocide, westward expansion, imperialism, land rights 
  • * Bolded and color text are suggested vocabulary and content that students may especially focus their attention.

Example 2: Japanese Internment 

aThis photograph captures a business owner's nationalism and the the sign's presence seems benign, until one reads the Library of Congress’s bibliographic notes:

"Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war.”

An essay that includes this photograph as evidence may include an introduction that references and addresses:

Historical context (time, events, place, and people): WWII, Pearl Harbor, Japanese people (U.S. citizens, immigrants, Japanese nationals--Issei, Nisei,Sansei), West Coast, California, Executive Order 9066, internment camps, xenophobia, President Roosevelt, relocation, General John DeWitt, Fred Korematsu, Japanese American Citizens League, Japanese American servicemen.

  • Historical significance: citizenship, national security, civil rights, race and ethnicity, America’s home front, xenophobia, scapegoating, reparations.