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

June 2024
4min read

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

(A) broadening the right of married women to hold property in their own names; (B) gaining the right of women to vote in national elections; (C) expanding the opportunity for women to receive a college education; (D) improving the job opportunities for women in the teaching profession at the elementary level.

16 The strategy of the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War was based on all of the following assumptions EXCEPT :

(A) Cutting the North in two by seizing Washington and thrusting northward into Maryland and Pennsylvania would force the North to sue for peace. (B) The dependence of Great Britain and France on southern cotton would lead them to grant diplomatic recognition and give military aid to the Confederacy. (C) Arming the slaves would help the South to offset superior northern manpower. (D) Southern control of the port of New Orleans would induce the states in the upper Mississippi Valley to join the Confederacy.

17 Federal policy toward Indians between the 1880’s and the 1930’s was based mainly on the assumption that

(A) the Indians should be assimilated into white society; (B) Indian culture and tribal organization should be nurtured; (C) interference with Indian culture and tribal organization should not be permitted; (D) the Indians should be removed from their homeland areas and relocated in Indian Territory.

18 In the first decade of the 20th century, black leaders debated the issues of direct political action to obtain civil rights and the type of training or education blacks should seek. The chief figures in these debates were

(A) Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass (B) Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois (C) Marcus Garvey and Father Divine (D) A. Philip Randolph and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

19 Collective bargaining between labor and management became widespread in American industry after

(A) the voluntary acquiescence of large industries that had suffered major strikes in the late 19th century; (B) a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Holmes in the early 20th century; (C) legislation enacted during the administration of President Wilson before World War I; (D) legislation enacted during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930’s.

20 The Korean and Vietnam wars were similar in all of the following respects EXCEPT :

(A) Warnings were voiced by some respected military leaders against the U.S. becoming bogged down in a land war in Asia. (B) Domestic support of the war declined, as the possibility of a quick and decisive U.S. military victory grew remote. (C) U.S. troops were engaged against an essentially guerrilla enemy force. (D) The war remained limited rather than leading to war directly between, or among, the major powers.

21 The diversity of local manufacturing shown in the census in the box below for a small town in Ohio in the early 19th century was characteristic of an area that had yet to

(A) adopt the system of rectangular land surveys and establish credit facilities for persons buying land at public auction; (B) make the transition from a barter to a cash economy; (C) accumulate an adequate supply of skilled labor to facilitate industrial growth; (D) be made accessible as a market for eastern manufactures by the construction of canals and railroads through the Appalachian barrier.

… 3 saddlers, 3 hatters, 4 blacksmiths, 4 weavers, 6 boot and shoe makers, 8 carpenters, 3 tailors, 3 cabinet makers, 1 baker, 1 apothecary, and 2 wagon makers’ shops—2 tanneries, 1 shop for making wool carding machines, 1 with a machine for spinning wool, 1 manufactory for spinning thread from flax, 1 nail factory, 2 wool carding machines. Within the distance of six miles from the town were—9 merchant mills, 2 grist mills, 12 saw mills, 1 paper mill with 2 vats, 1 woolen factory with 4 looms, and 2 fulling mills.


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