Center for the Teaching of History

2022 National History Day -- Debate & Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences

Start by looking through the official National History Day 2022 Debate & Diplomacy in History Theme Book.

Then begin exploring the many historical resources available at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  You can begin searching for inspiration anywhere in our collections: by exploring our library catalogs, our online resources, our collection guides, or by visiting us in person.

Have research questions?  Not sure where to start?  Our Library Reader Services are happy to help!  You can contact our librarians at 617-646-0532, by email at, or via live chat and virtual reference services with any questions.

Interested in obtaining reproductions of materials that have not been digitized? Learn about our reproductions policies on our website, or email with specific questions.

Questions to Get You Started

The following are a sample of the many potential topics for a National History Day 2022 Debate & Diplomacy in History project based on MHS Collections, digitized and on site. Please note that these ideas are just to get you started, and many of these subjects will have to be narrowed down to produce a high quality project. We recommend browsing our Online Collections for ideas as well--just a few of those collections are linked to topics listed below.

"It is important to consider the short-term and long-term impact of different events or exchanges on history. Students need to determine the legacies and consequences, good and bad, of the debates and diplomatic actions they choose. They must ask questions about successes, failures, and consequences to drive analysis. " (NHD Theme Book, 7). 

Debates and diplomacy are not limited to words and conversations. Rather, a piece of jewelry, a newspaper article, a gift, or even this document can convey a message and influence a negotiation or debate. Think through the ways in which words and visual objects can influence debates and impact relationships between people, communities, and nations.

Below are some questions to get you started:

  1. What does debate mean? What are the different forms it may take?
  2. What is diplomacy, and who is involved in it?
  3. Why was a particular debate or diplomatic event/agreement important? How did it shape events that came after it?
  4. How have diplomatic relations between particular nations soured or improved over time? What caused the changes?
  5. What are the limitations of diplomacy? Was an agreement followed? If not, what happened instead?
  6. How have debates over a particular idea changed over time, especially with the development of [object/thing/idea] or the occurrence of a particular event?

Thinking Through The Archive

Archive: "a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.”                                                                  Analysis: “detailed examination of the elements or structure of something.”

As historians, it is important to think through the authors of the sources that you are working with. What is their story, and were they in a position of power? What does the source tell us? What does it not tell us? Does it silence a particular narrative at the expense of sharing another?

  • Northeast Boundary Papers, 1700-1799. This collection is composed of correspondence and other papers concerning the dispute over the St. Croix River, part of the lands of the Passamaquoddy which the U.S. and Canada illegally claimed as their own and used as part of their Northeast boundary in the Treaty of 1783. The collection contains depositions and interrogations of persons living in the vicinity of the river, including members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and other Wabanaki nations, and of surveyors employed by both countries. How many different perspectives were involved? What were the goals of the different parties? Which voices are included or left out?
  • Proceedings of Two Meetings with Native Americans, July 1780. This small collection contains the proceedings of two meetings held between Native Americans and the British superintendent of Indian Affairs, Col. Guy Johnson, at Niagara on 3 July and 6 July 1780. The proceedings include transcripts of speeches by Johnson accusing the Native Americans of disloyalty and speeches by tribal representatives accusing the British of deception. The transcripts were written in an unknown hand. Historically, institutions like the MHS have housed mostly sources telling the experiences of white people. Who is likely to have recorded these speeches? Why are these proceedings important? And, why is it that the archive often only communicates a more whitewashed perspective?
  • Massachusetts Debates a Woman's Right to Vote. The MHS collection highlights the fight over a woman’s right to vote in Massachusetts by illustrating the arguments made by suffragists and their opponents. The purpose of a debate is to present the audience, and judges, with many viewpoints and perspectives. Why is it important to communicate many views, even if they contradict each other?

Debate and Diplomacy: Prompts Through The Eras

Early New England

The Revolutionary War Era

The Early Republic

The 19th Century 

  • Massachusetts and the National Debate Over Slavery, 1800s-1840s:What was the legacy of the Amistad trial?
  • William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator: Whose voices are given space in the newspaper? What debates fill the pages?
  • Anthony Burns and The Fugitive Slave Act: Following his self-liberation from slavery, Burns escaped to Boston. Due to the Fugitive Slave Act, he was jailed in the summer of 1854, raising a public outcry. (The Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League was founded in 1854 to aid freedom seekers and resist the Fugitive Slave Law.) Burns wrote a letter to Boston lawyer and abolitionist Richard Henry Dana, imploring abolitionists to purchase his freedom. In 1857, Burns again wrote to Dana sharing the opportunities--including a college education--that freedom had made possible for him. Was Burns' story typical? What role did individuals, groups, laws, and the courts play in Burns' life and in response to the Fugitive Slaw Law more broadly?
  • The Civil War Diaries of Charles Francis Adams: CFA was a diplomat at the Court of St. James, tasked with maintaining British neutrality in the American Civil War. The diaries span January 1861-April 1865. Why was British neutrality important for the success of the Union Army? How did CFA achieve this diplomatic goal?

The 20th Century

  • The Treaties of Peace, 1919-1923: For which countries were the peace treaties following WWI a success? A failure? How did they shape the decades that followed?
  • Margaret B. Wright and Female Journalism Capturing Women in the Workspace: What specific arguments does Wright make? How have debates over women in the workforce changed over time? 
  • Sheldon Leavitt Crosby Papers, 1914-1939 and Photographs depict Leavitt's diplomatic work, particularly in Turkey during the interwar period. Learn more about the Sheldon Leavitt Crosby photographs and the 1925 bombing of Damascus, Syria in this 2019 MHS Beehive blog postWhat was the role of diplomacy following WWI? In what ways did diplomacy fail to maintain peace? 

 Primary Source Highlights

Historians use many types of media to conduct research. For example, they may look at diaries, letters, records, photographs, maps, or newspapers to perform their work. Similarly, diplomats use more than words to convey messages and maintain relationships. What can these media tell us about a nation, event, or time period at-large? Here are examples of interesting documents and artifacts which could inspire your NHD project.

Diplomatic Medal of the States-General of the United Provinces of Holland given to John Adams


This gold medal was presented by the States-General of the United Provinces of Holland to John Adams upon his departure as minister on 6 March 1788. Adams was the first envoy to Holland from the United States, and this is the only 18th-century diplomatic medal known to exist. Learn more about the diplomatic work of John Adams and John Quincy Adams at the Adams Family Papers and Adams Papers Digital Edition!


Many U.S. diplomats received gifts while performing duties abroad. For example, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge received a baton made by An-Thanh Nuy Chuong Quan-Doi, a Vietnamese artist, circa 1963-65 in honor of Lodge's ambassadorship. 

Examining Symbols

[Diplomats] perform the critical task of cultivating relationships with foreign counterparts through skillfully selected words, tools, and actions. But when words fail due to language differences, time constraints, physical distance, or intractable disagreements, nations sometimes communicate through carefully selected symbols (NHD, 12).

African Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts



a sepia-toned photograph of a tall brick building. Two Black women stand at either side of the building.

The African Meeting House stands at 46 Joy St. in Beacon Hill. Built in 1806, it is the oldest extant Black church building in the United States, and today is part of the Museum of African American History. Throughout the nineteenth-century, the African Meeting House hosted numerous anti-slavery events, including the founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society by William Lloyd Garrison in 1832; the 1833 farewell address of Maria Stewart, a Black woman and the first American-born woman to speak publicly in a gender-mixed audience; an 1860 anti-slavery speech by Frederick Douglass after being run out of Tremont Temple; and the 1863 recruitment to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw  (MAAH).

A letter written by John Quincy Adams.  The letter is written in cursive on yellowing paper and ink from the reverse side is visible.

Letter from John Quincy Adams to William Eustis, 25 April 1808, Regarding the Embargo Act 


Not only was the Embargo Act of 1807 divisive amongst politicians, merchants, and everyday Americans, it turned out to be a total failure! (Deeply unpopular, the act led to widespread smuggling. It was also costly; the act ultimately hurt the economy of the United States more than the intended targets--Great Britain and France.) Several collections held at the MHS contain different perspectives on the Act. For starters, check out Letters to William and Caroline Eustis, in which William, a diplomat, corresponds with both John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson over their support of the Embargo Act. (JQA even broke with the Federalist Party over the issue.) You can dig deeper into JQA's reasons for his support of the Act in his diaries.


Looking for another perspective? In the Bromfield and Clarke Family Papers, John Bromfield discusses business conditions in England aboard the ship Marie during the 1808 embargo, including letters discussing the financial and physical dangers of delivering a shipment of goods from the United States.

Banquet to the Ambassadors of Japan, by Members of the Boston Board of Trade: Bill of Fare