Revision guide

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Building the American Nation

These notes are designed to help you prepare for the final exam. Remember that the exam is worth 75% of your overall grade, so you must take it seriously.

“Revision” is, in fact, a misleading term. Rarely will your old notes be sufficient to get through the exam. Instead you should regard the “revision” period as the time when you begin to really understand the work you have done this year, to make connections and to deepen your understanding of the historiographical debates surrounding each topic. I would recommend that you spend at least three weeks solidly preparing for this exam (which means beginning your revision long before that since you presumably have other exams to sit as well.)


There is, of course, no one “right” way to revise. What I offer here are simply a few suggestions that may help.

Stage 1: understanding the problem

Begin by looking at past exam papers on the web and at the three specimen exam papers included in Section E of this guide. Could you answer at least three essay questions on each paper? Work out where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Section B of this guide contains a list of the topics we have covered in the lectures and classes. There will be no questions on the exam paper that are not covered in this list, but of course, not all of the topics will come up.

Decide which topics you are going to concentrate on. As a rough guide, you need to pick a minimum of six topics (and understand them inside out) in order to be confident of answering three questions on the exam.

Read Section D of this guide, in which I briefly set out some of the “key themes” of the course. It might help to structure your thinking about the process of change and the meaning of events in this period.

Stage 2: consolidating your knowledge and stimulating your ideas

When you have decided which topics to concentrate on ask yourself these questions about them:

  • What are the principal analytical questions one could ask about this topic?

  • What answers have historians provided to these questions in the past?

  • What evidence have these historians used to support their case?

Answering these questions well will require you to use several sources:

  • Your old notes from lectures, books & journal articles.

  • The books and articles listed in section D of this guide

  • Book reviews

  • The primary sources on the web site

Each of these sources is important. By the time you come to sit the exam you should have created a new set of concise and focused notes for each topic based on all these sources and answering the three questions above.

Stage 3: focusing on exam performance

Practice producing some essay plans so that you get into the habit of structuring answers to questions and using your knowledge strategically. Write some timed essays (which I will be happy to look at).

Remember that examiners are assessing the quality of your historical understanding, the extent to which you have fulfilled the objective of writing a sophisticated and coherent argument well-supported by relevant evidence. (See the History Department Undergraduate Handbook for detailed programme objectives and for a breakdown of what each classification means.)

In particular, when writing essays in exam conditions make sure that you:

1. FULFIL THE RUBRIC (i.e. answer THREE questions).

  • A short or non-existent third essay will bring down your mark sharply. Do the maths: two essays each of which get a mark of 60 but no third essay gets you a lower score than three essays each of which get 55. Time yourself strictly so that you spend no more than 60 minutes on each essay.


  • Do not present a collection of facts about a topic but organise your answer so that it provides a focused and coherent answer to the specific question set. (For example, although much of the material would be the same, you should not write exactly the same essay in answer to the question “Why did the North take so long to win the Civil War?” as you would to answer the question “Why did the South lose the Civil War?” . Each question points you to a particular analytical problem, and it is that upon which you must focus.)

  • It follows from this that narrative detail gets you no credit at all unless you explain why it is relevant.

  • So: always pause before start writing. Plan your essay first and make sure that you understand what the question is getting at: try to explain and define ambiguous phrases or words.


  • Don’t waste valuable time with an introduction that ‘provides some background’. Don’t digress. Don’t include material merely because it’s interesting (include it only if it’s pertinent.)

  • But at the same time, make connections clear. Explain WHY something is important or relevant. Remember that the examiners are looking for a coherent and informed analysis. You will not be marked down for coming to the ‘wrong’ conclusions, only for NOT MAKING AN ARGUMENT AT ALL. (Or for making an argument that is not supported by evidence and that reveals a lack of knowledge of the literature.)

  • STRUCTURE your answers clearly, with each paragraph making a point that clearly relates to the question.

  • Remember that all history essays are also historiographical essays. You should be explicit about different historical interpretations and evaluate them.


There are many different “themes” that could be identified in the history of the USA in this period. Here are four, inter-linked ideas. Thinking about the course thematically in this way may help you to see connections and patterns that you have not spotted before.

1. Race Relations. Perhaps the most salient connecting theme in the course, racial attitudes and more specifically contests over the position of African Americans, informed the making of the Constitution and underlay the sectional crisis that led to Civil War. It would be a gross exaggeration to describe the period 1861-1877 the story of the collapse of the old conception of the USA as the “white man’s republic” but this was nevertheless a revolutionary period in terms of the legal and political status of blacks.
2. The Development of Capitalism. The spread of wage labour is perhaps the most important single force that shaped American society in this period. The spread of capitalism affected the nature of family life, the social role of women and children, and arguably influenced the rise of evangelical religion during the “Second Great Awakening”. Throughout this period many Americans held up a Jeffersonian ideal of small farmers and self-sufficient producers while others embraced the economic diversification and increasing social stratification that came with the “market revolution.” These different conceptions about the ways in which the United States should develop economically arguably underlay the Second Party System. Class was at least as important as race in structuring the social experience of most Americans in this period; even slavery can be understood as a class relationship as well as a racial one.
3. The role of government. Closely related to the theme of capitalist development is the contest over the role of government in American life, including the proper relationship between the federal government and the states. The language of the American Revolution, with its dread of tyranny, gave Americans a fierce resistance to governmental power. Yet there was also a countervailing yearning to use government to achieve economic and political objectives that reached its apogee during and after the Civil War. The Fourteenth Amendment constituted a potential (even if never fully realised) revolution in the relationship between the federal government and the states.
4. National Identity. Embodied in all three of these themes is a long-range debate about what the American republic stood for. What, in practice, did the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence mean?


1. Book reviews can be a source of inspiration, especially the review essays published in Reviews in American History (avaiable on the web via JSTOR).

2. Peter Parish’s Reader’s Guide to American History, will make this whole process much easier. Fail to use it at your peril.
3. The following is an indication of some of the most useful books for revision purposes. I doubt you will have the time to read every page of every book in the list below. Familiarise yourself with the general themes, arguments and evidence presented in all the books below that are relevant to the topics on which you are concentrating.
Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country [chapter 6 only]

Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic , [esp. parts 5 & 6]

Bruce Levine, Half Slave and Half Free

Harry Watson, Liberty and Power

Peter J. Parish, Slavery: History and Historians

Peter Kolchin, American Slavery

Robert V. Hine & John Mack Farragher, The American West

Stokes & Conway, eds, The Market Revolution

Adam I. P. Smith, The American Civil War

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

Ira Berlin et al, Slaves No More

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution [OR Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction]

Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color
Edward Ayers, The Promise of the New South


Answer THREE questions in THREE hours

  1. EITHER (a) Assess the achievements and failures of the Antifederalists between 1787 and 1800.

OR (b) How would you account for the fact that, after losing one presidential election, the Federalists never regained national power?

  1. EITHER (a) How and to what extent was slave culture influenced by white society?

OR (b) “The main reasons for Southern adherence to slavery were economic.” Discuss.

  1. EITHER (a) How and why was the policy of Indian Removal carried out? OR (b) How was the dispossession of the Plains Indians in the 1860s and 70s justified?

  1. In what ways did the Market Revolution transform American society?

  1. Was the ‘pro-slavery ideology’ developed in the South in the antebellum period the product or the cause of northern abolitionism?

  1. EITHER (a) How different were North and South in 1860?

OR (b) Why did northerners respond to secession with a war to save the Union?

  1. To what extent did the lives of African Americans improve during Reconstruction?

  1. Were the ‘robber barons’ aptly named?

  1. How did the character of immigration change between 1850 and 1920?

  1. What divided the Democratic and Republican parties between 1877 and 1920?

  1. Why was there so much violence associated with conflict between capital and labour between 1877 and 1896?

  1. What does Turner's 'frontier thesis' explain and what does it obscure about the cultural and political consequences of the westward expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century?

  1. Assess the effects of the depression of the 1890s.

  1. ‘Populism: a genuine mass democratic movement’ Discuss.

  1. EITHER (a) In what areas did progressive reformers achieve most success, and why?

OR (b) Why was control of alcohol so important an issue in late nineteenth and early twentieth century American politics?

  1. Why did Wilson attach so much importance to the League of Nations and why was he unable to gain American adherence to it?

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