7 Historical Texts You Never Knew Existed

Hi, Shmoopers,

Did Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination actually start World War I? Why did Nixon write an entire speech about a dog? And how is “Ich bin ein Berliner” even pronounced? These are questions you’ve asked yourself a zillion times. Or, you know, never.

With Shmoop’s new Learning Guides for Historical Texts, you can dive into nearly fifty primary sources and get the nitty-gritty on every last word.

1. Hope, Despair and Memory

The Holocaust was an unthinkable atrocity, and those few who survived had the experience burned into their minds. Elie Wiesel‘s speech, “Hope, Despair and Memory” (1986) reminded people that the social ills that led up to the Holocaust were still alive and well forty years later. His plea: mankind needs to stop ignoring its mistakes and come to grips with them—and with them firmly in mind, work toward peace. Maybe another forty years will do the trick?

2. The Checkers Speech

Richard Nixon, scrambling to preserve both his political career and Republican hopes of victory in the 1952 presidential election, planned a speech addressing his alleged misappropriation of a “secret fund.” Nixon’s “I’m just a regular guy with a dog named Checkers” approach, plus an unprecedented national audience via TV and radio, left an indelible mark on American political strategy and propelled the Republicans to an overwhelming victory in the election.

3. Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth began her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech (1851) by pointing out that the status quo wasn’t okay. Women aren’t fragile things that need to be treated like weird glass-blown angels, but, uh, at that point? Black women were treated absolutely horrifically. She discussed the lack of logic present in inequality and used some religious imagery to prove her (obviously correct) point. Bottom line: with the combined forces of determined women, there can be change.

4. The Stamp Act

Taken on its own, the Stamp Act (1765) is pretty unremarkable legislation. It’s just a list of how much everything is going to cost under a new tax and the necessary framework to make it enforceable. Think of it like how Captain America suddenly has super-geometry powers when he bounces his shield off stuff to knock Hydra agents out. Without knowing the context, it would be pretty easy to dismiss or to gloss over it. The Stamp Act becomes interesting only after knowing the environment it was released into, and what came out of it. (Psst: the United States. It was the United States that came out of it.)

5. The Zimmermann Telegram

Back in 1917, this German Foreign Minister dude named Arthur Zimmermann sent a message to his German ambassador buddy in Mexico about a new strategy for winning World War I. His note got intercepted, and nations on at least three continents were not at all pleased with its subject matter. See, Zimmermann suggested that Mexico attack the U.S. as a distraction from all the nasty stuff Germany was planning to do in the Atlantic. As a bonus, maybe they’d get Texas, Arizona, and California. He also implied that Japan could attack the U.S., too, and that Germany would pay for it. The outcome? The U.S. joined WWI. Kind of a big deal.

6. A Left-Handed Commencement Address

It was the beginning of the end of the Second Wave of Feminism, so when Ursula K. Le Guin was asked to be the commencement speaker at the graduation of a well-known women’s college in 1983, she had some things to say about what it means to be a woman. She argued that women should stop fighting for success as it’s defined in a man’s world, and instead get more comfortable with what it means to succeed as a woman in a woman’s world. She advocated separatism, to a certain degree, in order to establish places where women could be women without the patriarchal framework upon which American society was built. Plus, you know, the future lies with women. (Men would have an awfully hard time trying to procreate on their own…)

7. The Man With the Muckrake

In 1906, the rich and the working class were in a knockdown, drag-out cage-match, and the press was making sure everyone had ringside seats. Teddy Roosevelt (you know, the president) had something to say about it in a speech now known as “The Man With the Muckrake.” He started his speech off by calling journalists out for, uh, exaggerating. He then went on to say that, instead of fussing over haves versus have-nots, America should be concerned with the individual character of its citizens. Not all businesses spend their free time twirling their Snidely Whiplash mustaches and petting their white cats, and if we kill that stereotype, he said, we can acknowledge the businesses that are actually doing some good out there.

Hungry for more? We’ve also got deets on the classics: “I Have a Dream,” The Declaration of Independence, The Gettysburg Address…the list goes on.

Check ’em all out here.

Happy reading,

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