How to Identify the Author’s Point of View in Historical Documents for the GED Social Studies Test

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

You will definitely see historical documents on the GED Social Studies test. The author’s point of view is the position or attitude toward the issue or information he’s presenting. Knowing the author’s point of view is important in determining the point he’s trying to convey. Authors bring with them their own priorities, beliefs, and values, and that can influence how they select and present the information.

Start by identifying the intended audience and purpose of the passage:

  • Audience: The audience is comprised of the people the author is addressing. Do you think the author is addressing the general public, his peers, people who oppose his views, those who support his views, or some other group?

  • Purpose: The purpose is the reason the author wrote the passage. Is the passage intended to inform, tell a story, describe a situation, or persuade the audience to believe or do something?

After sizing up the audience and purpose, you should have a fairly clear idea of the author’s point of view. If the author is trying to convince the audience to believe or do something, for example, he probably believes in it himself.

You can also pick up clues about the author’s point of view from the evidence presented in the passage and the author’s word choice:

  • List the information and supporting evidence presented. Has the author omitted facts? What authorities does the author use to back up the argument or evidence? Are these authorities themselves reliable and unbiased? If an author omits certain facts or draws evidence from biased sources, it clues you in that the author’s point of view is firmly on one side of an issue.

    If an author uses quotations or refers to other sources, ask yourself whether these sources are accepted and knowledgeable ones. A pattern in the selective use of supporting evidence or authorities may indicate that the author is going to present information with a particular, possibly biased, point of view.

  • Look at the vocabulary used. Use of “loaded” words or inflammatory terms is a strong signal that the author is biased. For example, if a passage refers to opponents as fascists or bureaucrats, the author is using emotionally charged language to cast his opponents in the worst possible light.

This extract from the Declaration of Independence is a good example of a passage that expresses a strong author point of view with plenty of loaded words:

Extract from the Declaration of Independence

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

Here’s a sample question based on this passage that requires an ability to identify the author’s point of view:

The author of this passage believes which of the following?

  • (A) Citizens should overthrow rulers they disagree with.

  • (B) Rulers are tyrants.

  • (C) Overthrowing an established government is likely to cause people to suffer.

  • (D) Absolute tyranny and despotism are characteristics of any governing body.

Although the passage presents a very strong emotional argument defending the right and obligation of the people to overthrow tyrannical rulers, the passage begins with a statement that “mankind are more disposed to suffer … by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed,” as stated in Choice (C), which is the correct answer.

Choice (A) is wrong because the passage states that the people should rise up only when the rulers are guilty of long-term tyranny and despotism that “reduces” the people. Although the passage acknowledges that rulers can be tyrants and points to the example of the current king, Choice (B) is an overgeneralization not made in the passage. Likewise, Choice (D) is much broader than what the passage suggests.

The authors’ intent is to convince the reader that secession and creation of an independent United States is a justified action. The audience is both American and British people, both contemporary and future generations. First the document raises the obvious objection to overthrowing existing rule: “it should not be done,” but then modifies it by stating “lightly.” That implies that this decision was carefully considered.

The rest of the passage is a justification for revolution. The words chosen reinforce the perception of injustices suffered by the people. In addition to their dictionary meaning, the words despotism, usurpations, and tyranny have strong emotional overtones. By the end of the passage, you have no doubt that the authors believe revolution is not only justified but obligatory.