73 pages 2 hours read

Alan Brinkley

American History: A Survey

Nonfiction | Reference/Text Book | Adult | Published in 1971

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Summary and Study Guide


American History is a comprehensive textbook covering the growth of the US from the precolonial period through the modern era. The book was originally published in 1961 under the title American History: A Survey and written by Richard N. Current, T. Harry Williams, and Frank Freidel, but Colombia University historian Alan Brinkley assumed authorship with the ninth edition in 1979, Brinkley was chosen for his extensive expertise on American political development and his ability to write comprehensive yet engaging analysis for a high school audience. The text became a popular resource for US history classes in high schools nationwide, especially for Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

This guide refers to edition 15e from 2015, an edition specifically published for the AP class market. In addition to the standard text, the 15e edition includes resources for AP test practice and guided sections to help students develop the critical thinking skills necessary for success in AP exams.


The text explores the cultural, political, and socioeconomic, and philosophical aspects of US history. Events are ordered chronologically, beginning with the earliest development of human culture in the US, and each of the 32 chapters covers approximately a decade. Major events, such as the Civil War, have standalone chapters, which cover important facts such as historically significant dates and major political figures and contain additional sections that synthesize the many cultural and political factors that influenced the particular event and period. In addition, the text prompts readers to explore running themes throughout US history, such as the imperialistic motivations for American growth and the ways that technological advancements and political and cultural trends have affected the population.

The timeline of American History starts with early civilizations on the North and South American continents, which current consensus estimates happened sometime between 11,000 and 15,000 years ago. The book discusses the vast array of civilizations that came to exist in both North and South America, moving from the first hunter-gatherer tribes to the great empires of the Inca and Aztec that developed shortly before white colonization began. The book makes clear that the earliest history of the Americas is still widely misunderstood and that further research continues to upend what historians believe about the “pre-contact” New World. Before moving on to the history of the US as a nation, the book discusses the various colonial efforts of Spain, Portugal, France, and England after the “discovery“ of the New World. Beginning in the mid-1600s, as British settlement began to expand, the book shifts its focus to primarily discussing the development of what became the US. It recounts the transition from colony to independent country and the effects of that transition on Indigenous people, poor white settlers, wealthy white elites, and the growing enslaved Black population.

As American History moves through time, it covers both large-scale political and cultural developments and how those developments affected the increasingly diverse American population. Through the 19th century, the book covers many topics, including the development of political parties, the changing attitudes toward slavery, the growing divide between the North and the South leading up to the Civil War, expansion into the West and its effect on the Indigenous people and Spanish settlers already there, the growth of the industrial economy and the transition from rural agriculture to city-centric culture, and the advances and continued struggles of marginalized groups in the US.

In its coverage of the 20th and 21st centuries, American History explores the complex causes and effects of major world events, such as the two World Wars. It focuses heavily on the wars’ effects on American society despite the country’s distance from the conflict, and how the inter-war and post-World War II eras accelerated both activism to make the US a more egalitarian society and efforts to retain the historical social order. The book continues through the tumultuous years of the 1960s and 70s, discussing the impact of events like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Watergate scandal. It ends with the expansion of partisanship, communication, and globalization that defined the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Throughout the more than 300 years covered in American History, Brinkley thoroughly and consistently considers the complex factors behind every important event. Nearly every chapter has dedicated sections for how events affected those less commonly featured in historical accounts. He also considers how the intersectionality of disadvantage and privilege shaped the course of life for people from all walks of life. Presenting most of the information in American History as factual, Brinkley is careful to point out when a topic is still a source of debate among historians.