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Important themes and topics

Balance has been a big issue in the history field since the end of the days of boring names-dates-and-places history. The test writers stress the social and cultural trends that underlie political events, but it's important to know how trends and events fit into time. Dates are the buckets that hold social trends and political events together. You don't have to remember specific years, but you should have an idea of the decade in which trends and events unfolded. For instance, it's good to know that the Republican Party started after the Compromise of 1850 but before the Civil War.

The 80 multiple-choice questions that make up 50 percent of your score on the AP exam are a natural place for questions about hard-and-fast political events to appear. While fitting the nuances of schools of painting into five-choice questions is hard, it's relatively easy to ask multiple-choice questions about elections and wars. Even so, 4 out of 10 multiple-choice questions will be about cultural trends rather than political events. (You can find more about multiple-choice questions in Chapter 3.)

The Document-Based Question (DBQ), worth 22.5 percent of your total score, is all about the social and economic trends illustrated by political events. You'll analyze actual letters, pictures, and reports from a historic period and use the information you remember from your own knowledge stores to explain the era of the documents given to you. (More about answering the Document-Based Question is in Chapter 4.)

Two regular essay questions are each worth 13.75 percent of your overall score on the AP exam. These questions each require about a five-paragraph essay. If your essays make a good argument by referencing social, political, and economic events, you're on your way to a high score. (You can discover more about creating teacher-friendly essays in Chapter 5.)


Themes run through U.S. history. In the form of social or cultural history, these themes show up in 40 percent of the multiple-choice questions on the AP exam. Additionally, themes are the life-blood of the essays. You can improve your score on that section of the exam by referencing at least two themes in every essay answer. Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of what the AP U.S. History Development Committee considers to be important themes in American history:

- American Diversity: The roles of class, ethnicity, race, and gender in the history of America. Discuss different groups in the United States and the relationships between them; this theme is about how groups in the United States are different.

- American Identity: What it means to be an American, as seen in different parts of the United States and during different periods in history. Just what is the American national character, and how are Americans different from other people in the world? This is what teachers call American exceptionalism. You may think of American Identity as how various groups in the United States have certain similar characteristics.

- Culture: What was popular and earth-shaking in different periods of U.S. history. This category includes literature, art, philosophy, music, theater, television, and film. Culture — what people eat, watch, read, and sing, for example — reveals a country's real beliefs.

- Demographic Changes: The political, economic, and social effects of immigration and movements within the United States. It also covers the way marriage, birth, and death rates have changed. How many kids were in the average family? How long did people live? What was the overall population size and density? Counting people helps in understanding trends.

- Economic Transformations: The effects of business and personal financial incentives on the United States, including buying and selling, and the changes in business structure (from small store owners to big corporations). You can discuss the effects of labor unions and consumer movements. Basically, if you want to get a handle on why people do things, check out their bank accounts.

- Environment: How the expansion of the United States has affected the environment in different periods of history. What's the impact of more people, the expansion of cities and suburbs, pollution, and industrialization? Mother Nature has limits that affect human history.

- Globalization: The relation of the United States to the rest of the world, from the first colonies in the 1500s to the present. This topic includes global leadership and dominance, colonialism, mercantilism, imperialism, development of international markets, and cultural exchange. The United States isn't an island, however much isolationists want to make it one.

- Politics and Citizenship: What Americans believe about their revolutionary past, the importance of democracy, and the development of the U.S. nation. What do citizenship and civil rights mean? Just what is the United States, and who really is an American?

- Reform: The movement for social change. U.S. history has seen reform in areas like women's rights, civil rights, the existence of slavery, education, labor, public health, temperance, gay rights, war, and government.

- Religion: The variety of religious experiences and practices in the United States, covering the time period from the American Indians to the Internet. What's the influence of religion on economics, politics, and society? What you see as your purpose in life influences everything you do.

- Slavery and Its Legacies in North America: The meaning of slavery and other forms of forced labor (such as indentured servitude) in different periods of the nation's development. Subthemes include the money behind slavery and its racial dimensions, movements of resistance, and the long-term political, economic, and social consequences of slavery. After all, many of the leaders who founded the United States had the time to talk about freedom because slaves were doing their work for them.

- War and Diplomacy: How armed fights changed the United States, from the time before Columbus to the early-21st century war on terrorism. Perhaps the United States is a peace-loving nation, but the fact remains that the nation has been involved in a war about once every 20 years.


You need a rough idea of the way trends developed, at least in ten-year periods. Abolition, for instance, was minor in the 1820s but huge in the 1850s. Also, it helps to tie trend answers to the approximate year of key developments. For example, The Liberator was an important abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831. The founding of this newspaper marks the beginning of the growth of abolition in the northern United States. (Because knowing the general timeframe of trends is so important, in this book, you'll find major events and the names of important people italicized and followed by dates in parentheses.)


Although knowing historical themes can give you a more nuanced understanding, historical events and topics still pay the rent when it comes to your overall AP exam score. Here are the important event topics specified by the College Board in its U.S. History Course Description, arranged in roughly chronological order:

- Pre-Columbian Societies: The first people who lived in the Americas. American Indian polities in the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast, and the Mississippi Valley. The civilizations of Mesoamerica. All Indian cultures of North America before the explorers arrived.

- Transatlantic Encounters and Colonial Beginnings (1492-1690): Spain's empire in North America. The English settle New England and most of the Mid-Atlantic and South regions, and the French set up in Canada. Settlers arrive, sometimes with hope and sometimes in chains, in the Chesapeake region. Religious diversity leads to different American colonies. Early revolts against colonial authority: the Glorious Revolution, Bacon's Rebellion, and the Pueblo Revolt.

- Colonial North America (1690-1754): How the population expanded with more immigration. Trade made the port cities like Boston and New York grow, while farming expanded in the country. The impact of the Enlightenment and the First Great Awakening. How British and other colonial governments affected North America.

- The American Revolutionary Era (1754-1789): The French and Indian War leads to the Imperial Crisis and fighting back against British rule. Next come the U.S. Revolution, state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation, and the federal Constitution.

- The Early Republic (1789-1815): Washington, Hamilton, and the building of a national government. Political parties begin with the Federalists and Republicans. The meaning of Republican Motherhood and education for women. Effects of Jefferson's presidency. The Second Great Awakening. Settlers move into the Appalachian West. The growth of slavery and free black communities. American Indians fight back. The causes and outcomes of the War of 1812.

- Transformation of the Economy and Society in Antebellum America: The start of industrialization and changes in social and class structures. How steamboats, trains, and canals created a national market economy. Immigration and reactions against it from nativists. Planters, independent farmers, frontiersmen, and slaves in the South growing cotton.

- Transformation of Politics in Antebellum America: The development of the second party system. Federal authority and the people who fought against it: judicial federalism, tariff controversy, the Bank of the U.S., and states' rights debates. Jacksonian democracy increases popular government but has limitations.

- Religion, Reform, and Renaissance in Antebellum America: Evangelical Protestant revivals, ideals of home life, and social reforms. Transcendentalism and utopian communities. American growth in literature and art.

- Territorial Expansion and Manifest Destiny: Americans push American Indians across the Mississippi river to the West. The United States adds new territory. Western migration and cultural changes, and the beginning of U.S. imperialism and the Mexican War.

- The Crisis of the Union: Slaveholder-versus-antislavery arguments and conflicts, the Compromise of 1850 and popular sovereignty, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The emergence of the Republican Party, the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln, and the South leaves the Union.

- Civil War: North and South societies are at war. Resources, mobilization, and internal disagreement. Military strategies and foreign diplomacy. The role of blacks in the war. Emancipation. The social, political, and economic effects of war in the North, South, and West.

- Reconstruction: The reconstruction plans of Lincoln and Andrew Johnson versus Radical Reconstruction. Southern state governments: goals, achievements, and shortcomings. The role of blacks in politics, education, and the economy. The outcome of Reconstruction. The end in the Compromise of 1877.

- The Origins of the New South: Retooling Southern agriculture: sharecropping and crop-lien systems replace slavery. The expansion of manufacturing plants and business. The politics of segregation: race separation, Jim Crow, and disenfranchisement.

- Development of the West in the Late-19th Century: Rivals for the West: miners, homesteaders, ranchers, and American Indians. Building the Western railroads. Government policy toward American Indians. Men and women, race, and ethnicity in the far West. What Western settlement did to the environment.

- Industrial America in the Late-19th Century: How corporations took over industry. The effects of technology on the worker and workplace. National politics and the growing influence of corporate power. Labor and unions. Migration and immigration; the changing demographics of the nation. Fans and foes of the new order, including Social Darwinism and the Social Gospel.

- Urban Society in the Late-19th Century: City growth and machine politics. Urbanization and the lure of the city. Intellectual and popular entertainment, and cultural movements.

- Populism and Progressivism: Farmer revolts and issues in the late 19th century. Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson as Progressive presidents. The beginnings of municipal, state, and national Progressive reform. Women's roles in the family, politics, the workplace, education, and reform. Black America: city migration and civil-rights initiatives.

- The Emergence of America as a World Power: U.S. imperialism grows with political and economic expansion. The beginning of WWI in Europe and American neutrality, WWI at home and abroad, and the Treaty of Versailles. Society and economy in the postwar years. The first American troops in Europe.

- The New Era (1920s): The consumer economy and the business of America. Republican presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Modernism: the culture of science, the arts, and entertainment. Responses to modernism: nativism, religious fundamentalism, and Prohibition. The ongoing struggle for equality for blacks and women.

- The Great Depression and the New Deal: What created the Great Depression? The Hoover administration tries to do something. American society during the Great Depression. FDR and the New Deal. The New Deal coalition and its critics. Labor and union recognition.

- World War II: The rapid growth of fascism and militarism in Italy, Japan, and Germany. America's policy of neutrality. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S.'s declaration of war. Diplomacy, war aims, and wartime conferences. Fighting a multifront war. The United States as a global power in the Atomic Age.

- The Home Front during the War: The mobilization of the economy for World War II. Women, work, and family during the war. City migration and demographic changes. Reduced liberties and civil rights during wartime. War and regional development. The expansion of government power.

- The United States and the Early Cold War: The beginning of the Cold War. Truman's policy of containment. Strategies and policies of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. The Cold War in Asia: China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. The Red Scare and McCarthyism. The impact of the Cold War on American society. Establishment of NATO and the Berlin Airlift, both of which tie the U.S. to Europe.

- The 1950s: The beginning of the modern civil rights movement. The affluent society and "the other America." Agreement and conformity in the suburbs and middle-class America. Nonconformists, cultural rebels, and critics. The impact of changes in technology, science, and medicine.

- The Turbulent 1960s: Moving from the New Frontier to the Great Society. Developing movements for civil rights. Cold War confrontations in Latin America, Asia, and Europe. The beginning of détente. Hippies, the antiwar movement, and the counterculture.

- Politics and Economics at the End of the 20th Century: America moves right. Nixon wins in 1968 with the Silent Majority. Nixon's challenges: China, Vietnam, and Watergate. Changes in the American economy: deindustrialization, the energy crisis, and the service economy. The New Right and the Reagan revolution. The end of the Cold War.

- Society and Culture at the End of the 20th Century: America sees the social realities of being a rich nation. The changing face of America: surge of immigration after 1965, Sunbelt migration, and the graying and tanning of America. New developments in biotechnology, mass communication, and computers. A multicultural society faces the future.

- The United States in the Post-Cold War World: The American economy faces globalization. Unilateralism versus multilateralism in foreign policy. Home-grown and foreign terrorism. Environmental issues that affect the whole world. Short term power versus long term idealism.

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