Essential Questions in Teaching American History

by John McNamara
The previous list of Essential Questions
can be downloaded as a pdf here.

A carefully crafted lesson has a well-defined focus and framework as well as a clearly stated purpose. The lesson should present students with an issue that is phrased as a problem to be solved or a thought-provoking question to be analyzed and assessed. Effective lessons do not merely cover content and information; they present pupils with opportunities to discover ideas, explanations, and plausible solutions as well as develop informed, well-reasoned viewpoints. They can learn to think critically and develop positions and viewpoints through open-ended, evaluative “essential questions”; in each case, the students should be required to present evidence for their answers to these questions and approach the questions from different points of view.

United States History Course “Essential Question”

(To what extent . . .) Has the United States become the nation that it originally set out to be?

This question can be asked at several points throughout the course as a framework for analyzing and assessing historical events and the evolution of ideas.

Lesson “Essential Questions”

  1. Is America a land of opportunity?
  2. Did geography greatly affect the development of colonial America?
  3. Would you have migrated to Colonial America? When is migration a good move?
  4. Does a close relationship between church and state lead to a more moral society?
  5. Has Puritanism shaped American values?
  6. Was colonial America a democratic society?
  7. Was slavery the basis of freedom in colonial America?
  8. To what extent was colonial America a land of [choose one: opportunity, liberty, ordeal, and/or oppression]?
  9. Did Great Britain lose more than it gained from its victory in the French and Indian War?
  10. Were the colonists justified in resisting British policies after the French and Indian War?
  11. Was the American War for Independence [choose one: a revolt against taxes, inevitable]?
  12. Would you have been a revolutionary in 1776?
  13. Did the Declaration of Independence establish the foundation of American government?
  14. Was the American Revolution a “radical” revolution?
  15. Did the Articles of Confederation provide the United States with an effective government?
  16. Could the Constitution be written without compromise?
  17. Does our state government or our federal government have a greater impact on our lives?
  18. Does the system of checks and balances provide our nation with an effective and efficient government? Do separation of powers and checks and balances make our government work too slowly?
  19. Is a strong federal system the most effective government for the United States? Which level of government, federal or state, can best solve our nation’s problems?
  20. Is the Constitution a living document?
  21. Was George Washington’s leadership “indispensable” in successfully launching the new federal government?
  22. Should the United States fear a national debt?
  23. Whose ideas were best for the new nation, Hamilton’s or Jefferson’s?
  24. Are political parties good for our nation?
  25. Should the United States seek alliances with other nations?
  26. Should the political opposition have the right to criticize a president’s foreign policy?
  27. Is the suppression of public opinion during times of crisis ever justified?
  28. Should we expect elections to bring about revolutionary changes?
  29. Is economic coercion an effective method of achieving our national interest in world affairs?
  30. Should the United States fight to preserve the right of its citizens to travel and trade overseas?
  31. Does war cause national prosperity?
  32. Was the Monroe Doctrine a policy of expansion or self-defense? Was the Monroe Doctrine a “disguise” for American imperialism?
  33. Should the presidents’ appointees to the Supreme Court reflect the presidents’ policies?
  34. Did the Supreme Court under John Marshall give too much power to the federal government (at the expense of the states)?
  35. Does an increase in the number of voters make a country more democratic?
  36. Should the United States have allowed the Indians to retain their tribal identity?
  37. Does a geographic minority have the right to ignore the laws of a national majority?
  38. Did Andrew Jackson advance or retard the cause of democracy?
  39. Was the Age of Jackson an age of democracy?
  40. Should the states have the right to ignore the laws of the national government?
  41. Does the United States have a mission to expand freedom and democracy?
  42. To what extent were railroads the “engine” for economic growth and national unity in the United States during the nineteenth century?
  43. Have reformers had a significant impact on the problems of American society?
  44. Does militancy advance or retard the goals of a protest movement?
  45. Were abolitionists responsible reformers or irresponsible agitators?
  46. Was slavery a benign or evil institution?
  47. Can legislative compromises solve moral issues?
  48. Can the Supreme Court settle moral issues?
  49. Was slavery the primary cause of the Civil War?
  50. Was the Civil War inevitable?
  51. Does Abraham Lincoln deserve to be called the “Great Emancipator”?
  52. To what extent did the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln expand the concept of American democracy and freedom?
  53. Was the Civil War worth its costs?
  54. Was it possible to have a peace of reconciliation after the Civil War?
  55. Should the South have been treated as a defeated nation or as rebellious states?
  56. Did the Reconstruction governments rule the South well?
  57. Can political freedom exist without an economic foundation?
  58. When should a president be impeached and removed from office?
  59. Does racial equality depend upon government action?
  60. Should African Americans have more strongly resisted the government’s decision to abandon the drive for equality?
  61. To what extent did Jim Crow Laws create and govern a racially segregated society in the South?
  62. Has rapid industrial development been a blessing or a curse for Americans?
  63. Were big business leaders “captains of industry” or “robber barons?”
  64. To what extent did technological invention and innovation improve transportation and the infrastructure of the United States during the nineteenth century?
  65. Should business be regulated closely by the government?
  66. Should business be allowed to combine and reduce competition?
  67. Can workers attain economic justice without violence?
  68. Did America fulfill the dreams of immigrants?
  69. Has immigration been the key to America’s success?
  70. Has the West been romanticized?
  71. Can the “white man’s conquest” of Native Americans be justified?
  72. Have Native Americans been treated fairly by the United States government?
  73. Who was to blame for the problems of American farmers after the Civil War? Was the farmers’ revolt of the 1890s justified?
  74. Did populism provide an effective solution to the nation’s problems?
  75. Is muckraking an effective tool to reform American politics and society?
  76. Can reform movements improve American society and politics?
  77. Were the Progressives successful in making government more responsive to the will of the people?
  78. Does government have a responsibility to help the needy?
  79. To what extent had African Americans attained the “American Dream” by the early twentieth century?
  80. Is a strong president good for our nation? Should Theodore Roosevelt be called a “Progressive” president?
  81. Was the “New Freedom” an effective solution to the problems of industrialization?
  82. Was American expansion overseas justified?
  83. Did the press cause the Spanish-American War?
  84. Was the United States justified in going to war against Spain in 1898?
  85. Should the United States have acquired possessions overseas?
  86. Was the acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone an act of justifiable imperialism?
  87. Does the need for self-defense give the US the right to interfere in the affairs of Latin America?
  88. Was the United States imperialistic in the Far East?
  89. Was world war inevitable in 1914?
  90. Was it possible for the US to maintain neutrality in World War I?
  91. Should the United States fight wars to make the world safe for democracy? Should the United States have entered World War I?
  92. Should a democratic government tolerate dissent during times of war and other crises?
  93. Was the Treaty of Versailles a fair and effective settlement for lasting world peace?
  94. Should the United States have approved the Treaty of Versailles?
  95. Was American foreign policy during the 1920s “isolationist” or “internationalist?”
  96. Was the decade of the 1920s a time of innovation or conservatism?
  97. Did the Nineteenth Amendment radically change women’s role in American life?
  98. Did women experience significant “liberation” during the 1920s? Did the role of women in American life significantly change during the 1920s?
  99. Should the United States limit immigration?
  100. Does economic prosperity result from tax cuts and minimal government?
  101. Was the Great Depression inevitable?
  102. Was the New Deal an effective response to the depression?
  103. Did Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” weaken or save capitalism?
  104. Did Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” undermine the constitutional principles of “separation of powers” and “checks and balances?”
  105. Did minorities receive a “New Deal” in the 1930s?
  106. Do labor unions and working people owe a debt to the New Deal?
  107. Did the New Deal effectively end the Great Depression and restore prosperity?
  108. Has the United States abandoned the legacy of the New Deal?
  109. Did United States foreign policy during the 1930s help promote World War II? Could the United States have prevented the outbreak of World War II?
  110. Should the United States sell arms to other nations? Should the United States have aided the Allies against the Axis powers? Does American security depend upon the survival of its allies?
  111. Was war between the United States and Japan inevitable?
  112. How important was the home front in the United States’ victory in World War II?
  113. Was the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II justified or an unfortunate setback for democracy?
  114. Should the US employ nuclear weapons to defeat its enemies in war?
  115. Could the United States have done more to prevent the Holocaust?
  116. Was World War II a “good war”? Was World War II justified by its results?
  117. Was the Cold War inevitable?
  118. Was containment an effective policy to thwart communist expansion?
  119. Should the United States have feared internal communist subversion in the 1950s?
  120. To what extent were the 1950s a time of great peace, progress, and prosperity for Americans?
  121. To what extent did the civil rights movement of the 1950s expand democracy for all Americans?
  122. Should the United States have fought “limited wars” to contain communism?
  123. Should President Kennedy have risked nuclear war to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba?
  124. Does the image of John F. Kennedy outshine the reality?
  125. Did American presidents have good reasons to fight a war in Vietnam?
  126. Can domestic protest affect the outcome of war?
  127. Did the war in Vietnam bring a domestic revolution to the United States?
  128. Did the “Great Society” programs fulfill their promises?
  129. Does Lyndon Johnson deserve to be called the “civil rights president?”
  130. To what extent can legislation result in a positive change in racial attitudes and mores?
  131. Is civil disobedience the most effective means of achieving racial equality?
  132. Is violence or non-violence the most effective means to achieve social change?
  133. Did the civil rights movement of the 1960s effectively change the nation?
  134. Would you have actively participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s?
  135. How successful was the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s in achieving the mandates of the constitutional amendments of the 1860s and 1870?
  136. Do the ideas of the 1960s still have relevance today?
  137. Has the women’s movement for equality in the United States become a reality or remained a dream?
  138. Should an Equal Rights Amendment (“ERA”) be added to the Constitution to achieve gender equality?
  139. Did the Warren Supreme Court expand or undermine the concept of civil liberties?
  140. Should Affirmative Action programs be used as a means to make up for past injustices?
  141. Was the Watergate scandal a sign of strength or weakness in the United States system of government?
  142. Should Nixon have resigned the presidency?
  143. Should the president be able to wage war without congressional authorization?
  144. Did participation in the Vietnam war signal the return to a foreign policy of isolation for the United States?
  145. Did the policy of détente with Communist nations effectively maintain world peace?
  146. Is secrecy more important than the public’s right to know in implementing foreign policy? Should a president be permitted to conduct a covert foreign policy?
  147. Did the policies of the Reagan administration strengthen or weaken the United States?
  148. Should human rights and morality be the cornerstones of US foreign policy? Should the United States be concerned with human rights violations in other nations?
  149. Were Presidents Reagan and Bush responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War?
  150. Did the United States win the Cold War?
  151. Are peace and stability in the Middle East vital to the United States’ economy and national security?
  152. Should the United States have fought a war against Iraq to liberate Kuwait?
  153. Is it the responsibility of the United States today to be the world’s “policeman”?
  154. Can global terrorism be stopped?
  155. Does the United States have a fair and effective immigration policy?
  156. Should the United States restrict foreign trade?
  157. Has racial equality and harmony been achieved at the start of the twenty-first century?
  158. Should the United States still support the use of economic sanctions to further democracy and human rights?
  159. Should the federal surplus be used to repay the government’s debts or given back to the people in tax cuts?
  160. Should Bill Clinton be considered an effective president?
  161. Should a president be impeached for ethical lapses and moral improprieties?
  162. Should the United States use military force to support democracy in [choose one: eastern Europe, the Middle East]?
  163. Is it constitutional for the United States to fight preemptive wars? Was the United States justified in fighting a war to remove Saddam Hussein from power?
  164. Can the United States maintain its unprecedented prosperity?
  165. Is the world safer since the end of the Cold War?
  166. Should Americans be optimistic about the future?
  167. Should we change the way that we elect our presidents?
  168. Has the [choose one: President, Supreme Court, Congress] become too powerful?
  169. Should limits be placed on freedom of expression during times of national crisis?
  170. Should stricter laws regulating firearms be enacted?
  171. Is the death penalty (capital punishment) a “cruel and unusual punishment” (and thus unconstitutional)?
  172. Does the media have too much influence over public opinion?
  173. Should lobbies and pressure groups be more strictly regulated?
  174. Do political parties serve the public interest and further the cause of democracy?
  175. Was the Bush Doctrine an appropriate and effective policy to combat global terrorism?
  176. Is the United States justified to use preemptive military attacks against nations that support terrorism and/or develop and stockpile nuclear weapons?
  177. Has the election of the first African American president (Barack Obama) been a pivotal and culminating moment for the civil rights movement and race relations in the United States?

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History

Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.


In addition, essential questions do now allow for a "yes" or "no" answer. As stated above, they are the questions that anchor the course and can be examined during any period in history.

Great jumping-off points. Thanks for a terrific resource!

Do essential questions mirror DBQ questions? For example -- Was Columbus a Hero or a Villain?

I find these essentials questions so valuable to the process of common core. The questions require students to use their critical thinking skills to formulate answers to these question-no yes/no answers will be a quick fix.

John is the greatest! I have been using these in our classroom as writing prompts or closure activities. They really support student's critical thinking skills!

These questions cover the breadth of my American History and Civics classes. I will use them as part of my formative and summative assessments. Thanks.

Whenever I begin preparing for a new unit, I visit this list. These questions present the controversial ideas that make class interesting.

I will use these questions to start student discussions in my class.

This list really gets to the core of what I try to have my students understand and it helps me to stay the course and focused in my teaching. Thank you

Can someone please explain question number 6? I am having a hard time grasping exactly what it is asking. Thanks!

I have attached a link to a wonderful overview of the issue from historians Sven Beckert from Harvard and Seth Rockman from Brown.Here is the link
The classic book on the subject is Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery but there are a number of more recent studies as well (
Hope this helps,Ron Nash,Senior Education Fellow,Gilder Lehrman Institute

I'm trying to reshape these questions away from "shoulds" and yes/no, so for example, I took # 84 Should the United States fight wars to make the world safe for democracy? Or: Should the United States have entered World War I? and changed it to: For what objectives was America fighting in World War I? I think this question could then be plugged into any war and perhaps students could see a trend over time as to why the US becomes embroiled in wars. Thoughts?

Often rephrasing the questions as "to what degree can/is..." helps.

What qualifications must a war meet in order to be called "just?" Possibly starting with Aquinas or Mahabarata?

Principles of the Just War

A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.

With much due respect, I find your "Principles" very troubling, since these maxims are subjective. For example, how can anyone possibly know if all other options have been pursued? (Time is always an option, for example, and there is always more of it). In addition, your proposition of "proportion" is problematic, too, since you treat it as if it were an equation. Very few people actually agree on the outcomes of most conflicts, whether they escalate to violence or not. Moreover, the idea that any death is ever justified is also subject to debate, right?

Rather than tell our students what is justified, we should, of course, be facilitating activities that allow them to arrive at their own well-reasoned conclusions.

My two cents.

What a great list. I agree with Linda in how she is adjusting some questions away from yes/no. Essential questions by nature should not have yes/no responses. I will use the basic idea of them for objectives and but revise them to be more open-ended and steer students away from answering in a brief manner.

I like the idea of rephrasing some of these, too. I often use the format, "To what extent/or in what ways/or in what circumstances should...." This allows a student to move away from yes/no towards gray areas in history.

I tend to agree that the "To what extent.." type of questioning facilitate discourse from students and to move away from yes and no responses.

These essential questions are great starting points for discussions. Like others I would tend to make them more open ended.

I use the enduring understanding, "The power of law depends upon its enforcement' throughout my course.
Rephrasing to an essential question.. "How does the power of law depend upon its enforcement?" This question can be used in multiple units-- from the Supreme Court opinions in the Cherokee cases to Reconstruction amendments.

Just an offering to add.

A yes/no question is a great way to get the students into critical thinking. There is no wrong answer as long as they convince me their opinion is the correct one.

This is an amazing resource! These questions definitely promote thinking skills and reflection on the way our country has faced issues over time. I just love it! thank you

Add comment

Login or register to post comments