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What is a DBQ?
DBQ stands for Document Based Question. It is a type of essay that provides you with
documents to serve as sources of information for your writing. Each DBQ you take will look
very similar. There are certain things that are always given to you:
Historical Context: This is a paragraph that tells you some background information
about the topic of the essay. This will help you write your introduction.
Task: This is the actual question that you are attempting to answer in the essay.
This will help you write your THESIS, or last sentence of your introduction.
Documents and Scaffolding Questions: There will typically be 5-7 documents that
will be used to help you write your essay. Each document will also have 1-3
questions that you must answer before writing the essay. These questions will help
get you thinking about how to shape your essay.
Writing a DBQ: A step by step guide
Step 1: Read the Historical Context and write the first sentence of your essay.
This step will let you know what the essay is about and give you ideas for writing
your introduction. Let’s look at the historical context for this essay together.
Historical Context: The French Revolution of 1789 had many long-range causes. Political, social, and
economic conditions in France contributed to the discontent (unhappiness) felt by many French
people-especially those of the Third Estate. The ideas of the philosophers of the Enlightenment
brought new ideas about the role of government and powers guaranteed to citizens. Finally, the
American Revolution showed the French that a country could be successful without a king.
Sometimes, the most difficult sentence to write in an essay is the first one. The historical
context will help you do this. From that paragraph, we need to find the WHO, WHAT,
WHEN, and WHERE of this essay.
WhoWhatWhenWhereNow, we need to combine those 4 pieces of information into one “Historical context
statement.” Give it a try below. Write one sentence that states all 4: Who, what, when,
and where.
Historical Context Statement:
Remember this sentence, because it will be the first sentence of your essay!
Step 2: Read the task and write your thesis.
This step is one of the most important in writing a DBQ. Your thesis is the last
sentence of your introduction, and it is the most important sentence in the entire essay.
To write a thesis, you have to know what task you are being asked to complete. Let’s
look at the task together.
Task: Based on your learning and the documents that follow, write an essay
that addresses the following task. What caused the French Revolution?
Discuss examples of peasant hardships that urged the Revolution
Discuss at how Enlightenment ideas influenced the Revolution
Now that you know what you have to do, you are ready to write your thesis statement.
This is your
1-sentence answer to the task question. In other words, you need to answer all parts
of the question in 1 sentence so that I know basically what you will say in your essay.
Give it a try below.
Thesis Statement:
Remember this sentence, because it will be the LAST sentence of your introduction!
You now have the first and last sentences of your introduction. That, however, is NOT
an entire introduction. You still need the sentences that come in the middle and get
you from your historical context to your thesis. There is not one correct way to do this,
but many. We will come back to this step later.
Step 3: Read the documents and answer the scaffolding questions.
This step will take some time, but it is important because this is where you
will get most of your information for the essay. As you read and examine each
document, you must do 3 things:
1. Answer the scaffolding question(s)
2. Fill out your outside information box (this can be bullet points, but the information
must be something that is NOT in the document but is related)
3. Label each document based on which topic you think it would fit best with. For
this essay, it would make sense to put a “P” for peasant or an “E” for
enlightenment next to each document.
Document 1 Friedman & Foner, A Genetic Approach to Modern European History, College Entrance
Book Co., 1938
“. . . Powers of the king.—The King, Louis XVI, was absolute. He
ruled by the divine right theory which held that he had received
his power to govern from God and was therefore responsible to
God alone. He appointed all civil officials and military officers. He
made and enforced the laws. He could declare war and make
peace. He levied taxes and spent the people’s money as he saw
fit. He controlled the expression of thought by a strict censorship
of speech and press. By means of lettres de cachet (sealed letters
which were really blank warrants for arrest) he could arbitrarily
imprison anyone without trial for an indefinite period. He lived in
his magnificent palace at Versailles, completely oblivious to the
rising tide of popular discontent. . . .”
What kind of a ruler is Louis XVI?
Why might the people of France be angry with King Louis XVI?
Document 2: This diagram illustrates the three estates in 1789 and the land each held during the Old
Outside Information
Question 1: What conclusions can you draw about the relationship between the percentage of the
population in each estate and the percentage of land owned by that estate?
Question 2: What unfair conditions existed in pre-revolutionary France?
Document 3: Excerpt from: Miss Betham-Edwards, ed., Arthur Young’s Travels in France During the
Years 1787, 1788, and 1789
“September 5, 1788: The poor people seem very poor indeed. The children
are terribly ragged.
June 10, 1789: The lack of bread is terrible. Stories arrive every moment
from the provinces of riots and disturbances, and calling in the military, to
preserve the peace of the markets….The price of bread has risen above
people’s ability to pay. This causes great misery.
July 12, 1789: Walking up a long hill, to ease my mare, I was joined by a
poor woman, who complained of the times, and that it was a sad country;
demanding her reasons, she said her husband had but a small plot of land,
one cow, and a poor little horse, yet they had to pay a tax of 42 pounds of
wheat, and three chickens, to one noble and 168 pounds of oats, one
chicken and 1 sou [small unit of money] to another...the taxes and laws are
crushing us.
Outside Information
This woman, at no great distance, might have been taken for sixty or
seventy, her figure was so bent, and her face so wrinkled and hardened by
labor, — but she said she was only twenty-eight.”
Question 1: List three observations this traveler made about the life of the peasant in France
between 1787 and 1789.
Document 4: French And American soldiers during the American Revolution. France sent an
estimated 12,000 soldiers and 32,000 sailors to the American war effort.
Outside Information
Question 6: How might France’s participation in the American Revolution help spread the ideas of the
Document 5: : From Lectures on the French Revolution by Sir John Dalberg-Acton,an English historian,
politician, and writer.
Outside Information
“The condition of France alone did not bring about the
overthrow of the monarchy… For the suffering of the
people was not greater than they had been before. The
ideas Of the [Enlightenment philosophers] were not
directly responsible for the Outbreak… [but] the spark
that changed thought into action was supplied by the
Declaration of American independence… The American
example caused the Revolution to break out…”
What did Lord Acton believe caused the French revolution?
Document 6: Comte D’Antraigues as quoted in an excerpt from Citizens: A Chronicle of the French
“The Third Estate is the People and the People is the
foundation of the State; it is in fact the State itself; Nobles
and clergy are merely political categories while according
to the unchangeable laws of nature the People is
everything. Everything should be subordinated (inferior)
to it… It is in the People that all national power resides
and for the People that all states exist.”
Outside Information
Question 1: What Enlightenment idea is the Comte D’Antraigues expressing in this quote?
Document 7: The following are excerpts from a list of complaints about the king, taxing, and voting in
the Estates General that were presented to the assembled Estates General in 1789. Background- The
Estates General was like a Parliament or Congress. Representatives from each of the three Estates could
attend. Each Estate was given 1 vote for a total of 3 votes on any issue
the Estates General looked at. All of these reforms were rejected.
Outside Information
“That the king be forced to reform the abuses and tyranny [of his
rule]…. That every tax…. Be granted only for a limited time [and
periodically re-evaluated]….That the taille [a tax on land] be borne
equally by all classes…. The meetings of the Estates General…. Shall
be scheduled for definite times…. In order to assure the third estate
the influence it deserves because of its numbers… its votes in the
assembly should be taken by head…”
Question 1: What three changes did the Third Estate demand be made in
the French government?
Question 2: What is significant about the fact that the king rejected these demands?
Document 8: : Excerpt from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789).
1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights; social distinctions
(distinctions) can be established only for the common benefit.
2. The aim of every political association (government) is the conservation
(protection) of the imprescriptible (can’t be taken away) rights of man; these
rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression….
4. Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm another
10. No one may be disturbed (bothered, arrested) because of his opinions,
even religious, provided that their public demonstration does not disturb the
public order established by law.
11. The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most
precious rights of man: every citizen can therefore freely speak, write, print…
16. Any society in which guarantees of rights are not assured nor the
separation of powers determined has no constitution.
Outside Information
Question 1: According to this document, what are the natural rights of man?
Question 2: How might a belief in these ideas lead the French to start a Revolution against their king?
Before you can begin writing your essay, you should always create an outline. You do
not need to follow the format of the outline below, but you should have an outline
containing all of the same parts. In your body paragraphs, you should use 4 out of the 6
documents total. That would equal out to 2 documents for each of the body paragraphs (or
1 per topic).
Historical Context Sentence:
Body Paragraph 1 Topic: _______________
Document #s:
Outside Info:
Body Paragraph 2 Topic:_______________
Document #s:
Outside Info:
Restated Thesis:
Step 5: Write the essay
Start by writing your historical context sentence. This is the first sentence of your introduction. Now,
you need 2-3 sentences to get to your thesis. A good idea is to set up the examples that you plan to talk about
in your essay. These should be in your outline, so you don’t have to think them up from scratch. For this
essay, it might be good to have one sentence setting up your religious colonies and another sentence setting
up the colonies established for other reasons.
The last sentence of your introduction should be your thesis. Remember, your thesis is ALWAYS only
1-SENTENCE. If your thesis is more than one sentence, then it is wrong! It should answer all parts of the task
question within that one sentence.
Body Paragraphs
You should have at least one body paragraph for each part of the task question. For this essay, you
will probably either have 2 body paragraphs (one for religious and one for economic/political) or 4 paragraphs
(1 for each document). Your body paragraphs will consist mostly of information from the documents.
However, you will also need outside information (that is why we put it on the outline).
Each body paragraph should start with a topic sentence. Think of a topic sentence as half of your
thesis. Instead of addressing all aspects of the task, your topic sentence addresses one aspect of the task. In
this essay, that would mean that one paragraph is set up as about religious colonies and the other is about the
economic and political colonies.
After your topic sentence you will get into the substance of your essay. I recommend using what I like
to call the “rule of 4s.” The rule of 4s means that you should have 4 sentences any time that you use a
document and 4 sentences when you bring in an example of outside information. This works out to 4
sentences about a document, 4 sentences about a second document, and 4 sentences of outside information.
The outside information can be done in two ways. It can be 4 sentences paired up with the discussion of one
of the document topics OR it can be a stand alone topic that was not in a document.
You must also remember to use transition sentences when changing topics. This means
writing a sentence like: “Another colony that was formed for economic reasons was…”
Any time you change topics, ALWAYS use a transition sentence. You should also be sure to not end
abruptly. Have a sentence at the end to wrap-up the big topic of the whole paragraph.
Your body paragraph will be structured something like this:
• Topic sentence
• 4 sentences of document information
• Transition sentence
• 4 sentences of document information
• Transition sentence
• 4 sentences of outside information
• A sentence to wrap-up the paragraph
Conclusions should be easy because you don’t have to say anything new. Basically you start by just
restating your thesis in different words. Next, summarize each of the topics you discussed. A good way to do
this is to write one sentence for each document that you used. Finally, wrap-up the entire essay with one
good concluding sentence. Make sure your last sentence isn’t cheesy. Read it to yourself… if it sounds lame, it
probably is lame.