Essential Questions in Teaching American History

by John McNamara

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. Has Puritanism shaped American values?
  5. Was colonial America a democratic society?
  6. To what extent was colonial America a land of [choose one: opportunity, liberty, ordeal, and/or oppression]?
  7. Did Great Britain lose more than it gained from its victory in the French and Indian War?
  8. Were the colonists justified in resisting British policies after the French and Indian War?
  9. Was the American War for Independence [choose one: a revolt against taxes, inevitable]?
  10. Would you have been a revolutionary in 1776?
  11. Did the Declaration of Independence establish the foundation of American government?
  12. Was the American Revolution a “radical” revolution?
  13. Did the Articles of Confederation provide the United States with an effective government?
  14. Could the Constitution be written without compromise?
  15. Does our state government or our federal government have a greater impact on our lives?
  16. 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?
  17. Is a strong federal system the most effective government for the United States?
  18. Is the Constitution a living document?
  19. Was George Washington’s leadership “indispensable” in successfully launching the new federal government?
  20. What spurred the debate over national debt?
  21. How did Hamilton and Jefferson’s ideas differ?
  22. How did political parties evolve?
  23. Should the United States seek alliances with other nations?
  24. Should the political opposition have the right to criticize a president’s foreign policy?
  25. Is the suppression of public opinion during times of crisis ever justified?
  26. Is economic coercion an effective method of achieving our national interest in world affairs?
  27. Should the United States fight to preserve the right of its citizens to travel and trade overseas?
  28. How has war related to national prosperity?
  29. Was the Monroe Doctrine a policy of expansion or self-defense? Was the Monroe Doctrine a “disguise” for American imperialism?
  30. Should the presidents’ appointees to the Supreme Court reflect the presidents’ policies?
  31. Did the Supreme Court under John Marshall give too much power to the federal government (at the expense of the states)?
  32. Does an increase in the number of voters make a country more democratic?
  33. How did the United States deal with the issue of Indian tribal sovereignty?
  34. Does a geographic minority have the right to ignore the laws of a national majority?
  35. Was the Age of Jackson an age of democracy?
  36. Should the states have the right to ignore the laws of the national government?
  37. Does the United States have a mission to expand freedom and democracy?
  38. To what extent were railroads the “engine” for economic growth and national unity in the United States during the nineteenth century?
  39. How have reformers had a significant impact on the problems of American society?
  40. Were abolitionists responsible reformers or irresponsible agitators?
  41. Was slavery the primary cause of the Civil War?
  42. Was the Civil War inevitable?
  43. Does Abraham Lincoln deserve to be called the “Great Emancipator”?
  44. To what extent did the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln expand the concept of American democracy and freedom?
  45. Was the Civil War worth its costs?
  46. Was it possible to have a peace of reconciliation after the Civil War?
  47. Should the South have been treated as a defeated nation or as states in rebellion?
  48. What problems did Reconstruction government face in the South?
  49. Can political freedom exist without an economic foundation?
  50. When should a president be impeached and removed from office?
  51. Does racial equality depend upon government action?
  52. How did Jim Crow Laws create and govern a racially segregated society in the South?
  53. Why are Gilded Age big business leaders described both as “captains of industry” or “robber barons?”
  54. To what extent did technological invention and innovation improve transportation and the infrastructure of the United States during the nineteenth century?
  55. What are some 19th century arguments that business should be regulated closely by the government?
  56. What are the arguments surrounding business being allowed to combine and reduce competition?
  57. How did the labor movement develop during the 19th and 20th centuries?
  58. Why was America a magnet for immigrants?
  59. Has immigration been the key to America’s success?
  60. Has the West been romanticized?
  61. Have Native Americans been treated fairly by the United States government?
  62. Who was to blame for the problems of American farmers after the Civil War? Was the farmers’ revolt of the 1890s justified?
  63. Did populism provide an effective solution to the nation’s problems?
  64. Is muckraking an effective tool to reform American politics and society?
  65. Were the Progressives successful in making government more responsive to the will of the people?
  66. What factors led to The Great Migration?
  67. Should Theodore Roosevelt be called a “Progressive” president?
  68. Was the “New Freedom” an effective solution to the problems of industrialization?
  69. What were the reasons behind American expansion overseas?
  70. Did the press cause the Spanish-American War?
  71. What was debate over the United States going to war against Spain in 1898?
  72. What arguments were raised to justify US involvement in the affairs of Latin America?
  73. Was world war inevitable in 1914?
  74. What were the arguments surrounding US entry into World War I?
  75. How did the government deal with dissent during World War I?
  76. What were the effects of the Treaty of Versailles on Europe?
  77. Why did Americans reject the Treaty of Versailles?
  78. Was American foreign policy during the 1920s “isolationist” or “internationalist?”
  79. Did the Nineteenth Amendment radically change women’s role in American life?
  80. How did the role of women in American life significantly change during the 1920s?
  81. How did the United States limit immigration in the 1920s?
  82. What were the causes of the Great Depression inevitable?
  83. Was the New Deal an effective response to the depression?
  84. Did Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” weaken or save capitalism?
  85. Did Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” undermine the constitutional principles of “separation of powers” and “checks and balances?”
  86. How did the New Deal effect labor unions and working people?
  87. What was Lend Lease?
  88. Was war between the United States and Japan inevitable?
  89. How important was the home front in the United States’ victory in World War II?
  90. How did the US deal with Japanese Americans during World War?
  91. Why did the President authorize use of  nuclear weapons?
  92. Was the Cold War inevitable?
  93. Was containment an effective policy to thwart communist expansion?
  94. Should the United States have feared internal communist subversion in the 1950s?
  95. What leads to the 1950s being termed a time of great peace, progress, and prosperity for Americans?
  96. What is the rationale behind fighting “limited wars” to contain communism?
  97. What was at stake during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
  98. What were the military and political rationales underlying the war in Vietnam?
  99. What role did domestic protest play in the ending of the war?
  100. How did debate over Vietnam bring affect the political culture of the United States?
  101. What did the “Great Society” programs attempt to do?
  102. Does Lyndon Johnson deserve to be called the “civil rights president?”
  103. How was civil disobedience used to fight for civil rights?
  104. Did the civil rights movement of the 1960s effectively change the nation?
  105. Should an Equal Rights Amendment (“ERA”) be added to the Constitution to achieve gender equality?
  106. Did the Warren Supreme Court expand or undermine the concept of civil liberties?
  107. What was the Watergate Scandal?
  108. Should Nixon have resigned the presidency?
  109. Can the president wage war without congressional authorization?
  110. What role did the policy of détente with Communist nations play in maintain  world peace?
  111. When have Presidents conducted foreign policy through secret negotiations?
  112. What role did Presidents Reagan and Bush have in ending the Cold War?
  113. Did the United States win the Cold War?
  114. How has the United States used economic sanctions in foreign policy?


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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

Well my social studies teacher has made me do 50 of these. Its day four of no sleep, the water supply is running out. I dont know what I am going to do..... Please send help

These are great. I'm an English Language Arts teacher looking for resources regarding WWI and WWII to partner with literary pieces from both time periods. Any suggestions? Is there a way to sort these questions by topic?

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