Everything You Never Knew About American History And Were Afraid You’d Be Asked


Earlier this year the New York Times asked four prominent historians—C. Vann Woodward of Yale, William E. Leuchtenbure of Columbia, Bernard Baihn of Harvard, and Benjamin A. Quarles of Morgan State College—to devise a test that would measure the level of the knowledge of American history of college freshmen. In all, 1,856 first-year students at 194 campuses nationwide were asked forty-two questions—with disheartening results. Inasmuch as readers of American Heritage are obviously interested in our nation’s history, we thought they would like to try the test, too. Herewith is a sampling of those questions. The answers, together with a few comments on commonly made errors, appear on page 92.


1 English colonization differed from Spanish and French colonization in that the English

(A) were the first to understand and act upon the economic potential of New World colonies; (B) came to the New World mainly as settlers rather than soldiers, missionaries, and trappers; (C) controlled vaster lands and larger populations; (D) established better relations with the Indians and blacks.

2 The preamble (introductory section) of the Declaration of Independence appeals to which of the following principles?

(A) Governments founded in popular consent (B) Strict majoritarian rule (C) The right of all men to protection of their property (D) The right of all citizens to vote

3 The federal Constitution explicitly authorized the

(A) creation of presidential nominating conventions; (B) power of federal courts to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional; (C) creation of the cabinet; (D) power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.

4 The aim of the Monroe Doctrine, as it was proclaimed in 1823, was to

(A) prevent the outbreak of democratic revolutions in Latin America; (B) guarantee preferential trading rights to the U.S. in Latin America; (C) secure a territorial outlet for American slavery in Latin America; (D) ensure that the U.S. rather than Europe would be the dominant power in the Western hemisphere.

5 All of the following characterized the Jacksonian Democrats EXCEPT

(A) hostility toward the institution of slavery; (B) support for freedom of economic opportunity; (C) opposition to special privilege and large business corporations; (D) opposition to internal improvements at federal expense.


6 Which areas did the U.S. acquire by purchase? (A) (B) (C) (D)

7 Which areas did the U.S. acquire by annexation? (A) (B) (C) (D)

8 Which areas did the U.S. acquire by war or the threat of seizure? (A) (B) (C) (D)

9 Which areas did the U.S. acquire by negotiated settlement of boundary disputes? (A) (B) (C) (D)

10 In the politics of the decade before the Civil War, the issue of slavery focused on whether

(A) racial equality should be the foremost national priority; (B) slavery should be permitted to exist in the territories; (C) slavery should be eliminated where it already existed in the states; (D) the foreign slave trade should be reopened.

11 Which of the following best describes the domestic changes brought about by the New Deal?

(A) The enactment of a number of new economic regulations, joined with new relief and welfare measures (B) A vast increase in governmental ownership of business (C) A major redistribution of income and wealth in favor of the poorest segment of the population (D) The restoration of a free market as a result of effective antitrust action

12 Before the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 that racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional, the Court had

(A) refused to consider cases about racial segregation; (B) justified racial segregation in public facilities by the “separate-but-equal” doctrine; (C) been prevented from considering cases about racial segregation by southern filibusters in Congress; (D) required desegregation of public facilities “with all deliberate speed,” but stopped short of ordering the President to enforce the decision.

13 From 1763 to 1776, the chief aim of colonial resistance to British policies was to

(A) bring about a long-suppressed social revolution against the colonial aristocracy; (B) achieve in America the ideals proclaimed in the French Revolution; (C) ensure that the colonists were represented in Parliament; (D) restore what the colonists perceived to be the rights of Englishmen.

14 The Articles of Confederation were most severely criticized in the 1780’s for their lack of

(A) a plan for the admission of new states; (B) equal representation of the states in Congress; (C) a bill of rights; (D) a national taxing power.

15 The feminist movement, which originated in the second quarter of the 19th century, succeeded in accomplishing all of the following before the Civil War EXCEPT