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General Questions to Consider

Voter Registration Card from Alamance County, 1902

Once you have a basic understanding about how to read a legal document, you may now embark on the task of understanding it.  A legal document is a primary source document.  As such, historians are encouraged to ask certain questions about its origins when working with it.  Although the answers to such questions may not be apparent in the document itself, they are nontheless important questions to ask and may point the interested researcher in the direction of uncovering further necessary information.  A general checklist for important questions to ask of any primary source can be found in David E. Shi & Holly A. Mayer, For the Record: A Documentary History of America, vol. 2, 4th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010).


General Questions to Ask of Any Primary Source (Shi & Mayer xix):

What type of document is it?

Why does the document exist? What motives prompted the author to write the material in this form?

Who wrote this document?

Who or what is left out of the document--women, children, other minorities, members of the majority?

How do the subjects of the document relate to what we know about broader society?

What was the meaning of the document in its own time? What is its meaning for the reader today?

What does the document tell us about change in society?


Specific Questions to Ask about Legal Documents:

What type of legal document is it? Is it a statute, a judicial opinion, an executive order, a contract or legal transaction?

If a legal contract or transaction, what laws allow for its existence?  

Who wrote the law in question and why?

What does the law address?

Does it amend a past law?

Who is controlling its interpretation and execution?  

Are there precedents which affirm the law's existence?

Is the law constitutional?  Can a case be made for or against its constitutionality?

What is the jurisdiction of the law in question?

What cultural factors may have contributed to the laws existence?

Is the law still in existence today?  Are their similar laws in existence today?  Why not?


Because of the nature of judicial laws, many of these questions can be answered by reading the text of the legal opinions in question.  Recall the thoroughness of Justice Brown to cover similar laws and precedents when considering the case of Homer Plessy.  Recall that Justice Brown also had to give a constititutional justification for his decision in the case.  Go back to the section entitled "Reading Legal Opinions" and see how many of these questions you can answer using Plessy v. Ferguson.  

Other legal documents do not give away such quantities of information.  Take a look at the "Voter Registration Card from Alamance County, 1902" shown above. How many of these questions above can you answer after reading that document? 

After answering the questions on the checklists about Plessy v. Ferguson and the "Voter Registration Card," determine for yourself how useful each document might be to a specific research project.  You should also consider how many questions you were not able to answer about the documents.  What additional sources are necessary to help you finish answering all of the questions on each list?