2015 APUSH Misses the Reasons America Is Exceptional

Larry Schweikart

Editor’s introduction: In June 2015, over 120 historians and scholars signed an open letter with criticism of the College Board’s 2014 version of the College Board’s Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) course framework. The main critique was that the 2014 framework paid little attention to “sources of national unity” and did not expose students to “vigorous debates about the nature of American exceptionalism, American identity, and America’s role in the world.” 

On July 30, the College Board responded to these and other critics by releasing a revised version of the frameworkBelow is an initial review of this version by Larry Schweikart, one of the open letter signers who is professor of history at the University of Dayton and co-author of A Patriot’s History of the United States.

Text from the APUSH standards are marked with page and section numbers. The APUSH course divides the teaching of U.S. history into chronological periods, each with what are called “key concepts” and additional sub-points. There are also seven “thematic learning objectives,” two of which are referenced here, “Work, Exchange, and Technology” (WXT), and “Culture and Society” (CUL).

Prof Schweikart’s comments on the APUSH text are italicized and indented. (Stanley Kurtz cites additional remarks by Prof. Schweikart in his article at National Review, “Sorry, Still No American Exceptionalism in APUSH.”)


p. 15. WXT-2.0 Explain how patterns of exchange, markets, and private enterprise have developed, and analyze ways that governments have responded to economic issues.

Why is this weighted toward how “government” responds, and why isn’t the question oriented to how individual entrepreneurs responded? Who cares how the government responds? It reacts, people act.

p. 16. WXT-3.0 Analyze how technological innovation has affected economic development and society.

Still a little sterile, because it assumes technological innovation. Inventors, entrepreneurs introduce technological innovation. Needs more people in it.

p. 18. CUL-4.0 Explain how different group identities, including racial, ethnic, class, and regional identities, have emerged and changed over time.

Needsand how such groups saw themselves as “‘Americans’” within those changes

p. 27. Key Concept 1.2, II.

A) Spanish exploration and conquest of the Americas were accompanied and furthered by widespread deadly epidemics that devastated native populations and by the introduction of crops and animals not found in the Americas.

What about the new research showing that many of these “epidemics” and diseases had already existed in the New World?

C) European traders partnered with some West African groups who practiced slavery to forcibly extract slave labor for the Americas.

Needs “West African groups and MUSLIMS who practiced slavery…”

p. 28. Key Concept 1.2, III.

B) As European encroachments on Native Americans’ lands and demands on their labor increased, native peoples sought to defend and maintain their political sovereignty, economic prosperity, religious beliefs, and concepts of gender relations through diplomatic negotiations and military resistance.

No awareness of deep technological and cultural superiority of western militaries, based on scientific method and “western way of war” that led to this.

C: Extended contact with Native Americans and Africans fostered a debate among European peoples and political leaders about how non-Europeans should be treated, as well as evolving religious, cultural, and racial justifications for the subjugation of Africans and Native Americans.

Any suggestion that Native Americans had “debate” about how to handle their captives or subjects?

Throughout Key Concept 1.2:

  • No awareness of utter incompatibility between two worldviews, one saying you can own land privately and one saying you can’t.
  • No indication of awareness of concept of common law in British North American colonies (but not Canada) that led to latitudinarianism and “bottom up” governance.
  • Serious deficiency of any key battles and leaders of the American Revolution. Need at least Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown, Washington, Greene, Arnold, as well as defeated Brits.

p. 34. Key Concept 2.2, II: Like other European empires in the Americas that participated in the Atlantic slave trade, the English colonies developed a system of slavery that reflected the specific economic, demographic, and geographic characteristics of those colonies. [see subpoints A-C]

No indication of rise of anti-slavery movement that was the first in the world, formation of antislavery societies. “Why did British Americans lead the world in rejecting slavery as a system?”

p. 37. Key Concept 3.1, II: The desire of many colonists to assert ideals of self-government in the face of renewed British imperial efforts led to a colonial independence movement and war with Britain. [see subpoints A-E]

Again, the concept of common law and bottom-up governance are missing entirely.

p. 39. Key Concept 3.2, II.

E) In the debate over ratifying the Constitution, Anti-Federalists opposing ratification battled with Federalists, whose principles were articulated in the Federalist Papers (primarily written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison). Federalists ensured the ratification of the Constitution by promising the addition of a Bill of Rights that enumerated individual rights and explicitly restricted the powers of the federal government.

I would include, though, that American ideals were grounded in common law, which France, Haiti, and Latin America DID NOT HAVE, and therefore would emphasize, “Why the difference in America?”

p. 42. Key Concept 3.3, II.

C) George Washington’s Farewell Address encouraged national unity, as he cautioned against political factions and warned about the danger of permanent foreign alliances.

Common misunderstanding of George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he gave a time frame of twenty years at the end of which we would be able to take our place among the nations of the world because we would have sufficient military power.

p. 44. Key Concept 4.1, I.

A) In the early 1800s, national political parties continued to debate issues such as the tariff, powers of the federal government, and relations with European powers.

This is a very serious misunderstanding of the basis of the Jacksonian Democrats, founded explicitly to protect slavery and grounded entirely on bribery via the “spoils system.” This is the key to this entire era, and explains failure of the Whigs mentioned in C whose main, defining characteristic is that as the opposing party they did NOT oppose slavery or challenge the “spoils system,” but only redirected it.

p. 46. Key Concept 4.1, III.

B) Abolitionist and antislavery movements gradually achieved emancipation in the North, contributing to the growth of the free African American population, even as many state governments restricted African Americans’ rights. Antislavery efforts in the South were largely limited to unsuccessful slave rebellions.

Important concept of American Exceptionalism is that America was vastly different from the Islamic and Chinese and African worlds in that there was an abolitionist debate at all (yes, in England too).

p. 48. Key Concept 4.2, II.

B) The growth of manufacturing drove a significant increase in prosperity and standards of living for some; this led to the emergence of a larger middle class and a small but wealthy business elite but also to a large and growing population of laboring poor.

Makes it sound like the “poor” were a larger and more growing part of population than middle class. Wrong.

p. 49. Key Concept. 4.2, III.

D) Plans to further unify the U.S. economy, such as the American System, generated debates over whether such policies would benefit agriculture or industry, potentially fearing different sections of the country.

Overemphasis on government-directed “American system” and not enough on entrepreneurs, innovators, and private sector (railroads set their own standardization of rails, created time zones, bankers developed—though states approved—concepts of branch banking and interstate banking).

p. 50. Key Concept 4.3, I.

B) Frontier settlers tended to champion expansion efforts, while American Indian resistance led to a sequence of wars and federal efforts to control and relocate American Indian populations.

Again, as mentioned earlier, failure to address key property concepts that led to this “sequence of wars,” and contrast with usually total destruction of native populations/losers of conflicts elsewhere throughout history.

Throughout this section and 1844-1877, failure to note that these arguments about slavery and human liberty were unheard of except in the U.S., England, a little in France.

p. 55. Key Concept 5.2, I.

C) Defenders of slavery based their arguments on racial doctrines, the view that slavery was a positive social good, and the belief that slavery and states’ rights were protected by the Constitution.

Needs to add “and were protected by the dominant Democrat Party through the gag rule and spoils system.”

Note that on p. 57 the term “Second Party System” is mentioned, but I don’t think this is introduced, and certainly never explained as an attempt to prevent the discussion of slavery at the national level by creating a dominant Democrat Party kept in power by the spoils system.

p. 56. Key Concept 5.2, II.

C) The Second Party System ended when the issues of slavery and anti-immigrant nativism weakened loyalties to the two major parties and fostered the emergence of sectional parties, most notably the Republican Party in the North.

Need to note that “Republican Party in the North which expressly made anti-slavery its top issue.” This was the sole reason for its founding. No other party was addressing the end of slavery.

p. 56. Key Concept 5.2, II.

D) Abraham Lincoln’s victory on the Republicans’ free-soil platform in the presidential election of 1860 was accomplished without any Southern electoral votes. After a series of contested debates about secession, most slave states voted to secede from the Union, precipitating the Civil War.

Needs to say “without any Southern electoral votes and without any Democrat support in either section.” Absolutely essential that the role of the Democrat Party as the protector of slavery in America be established. This was the sole reason for its founding.

p. 57. Key Concept 5.3

Entire section. Sorry, but war without generals and heroes is unacceptable. Demands mention of Grant, McClellan, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Gettysburg AT MINIMUM. Antietam by itself changed America more than any almost any major social movement in American history. This is “military history” without any fighting, without blood, without battles and without heroes.

p. 58. Key Concept 5.3, II.

D) Southern plantation owners continued to own the majority of the region’s land even after Reconstruction. Former slaves sought land ownership but generally fell short of self-sufficiency, as an exploitative and soil-intensive sharecropping system limited blacks’ and poor whites’ access to land in the South.

“Exploitative” absolutely wrong. Vast scholarly evidence (Higgs, DeCanio, numerous others) show sharecropping an efficient system in which sharecroppers worked by contract, moved to areas where pay was better, had competition in their borrowing/lending. The chart in Ransom and Sutch’s OWN BOOK (One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation) shows this competition that they claim didn’t exist. This is a value-laden term that has no business in this section. Within 14 years of having been slaves, blacks owned 10% of the land in the South, an incredible accomplishment I doubt has been seen anywhere else in the world.

Section needs: “Black entrepreneurs made significant gains in both the South and the North.”

p. 60. Key Concept 6.1, I.

A) Following the Civil War, government subsidies for transportation and communication systems helped open new markets in North America.

Makes it sound like transportation and communication only came because of subsidies which is wrong. Great Northern Transcontinental built entirely without subsidies. Subsidies actually RETARDED westward expansion of railroads. Whole sections A & B are heavily tilted toward government and “management systems” (i.e., Alfred D. Chandler’s argument) when it was entrepreneurs like Rockefeller who “dramatically increased the production of goods.” Carnegie Steel was run essentially as a SMALL business without heavy layers of management.

p. 60. Key Concept 6.1, I.

C) As the price of many goods decreased, workers’ real wages increased, providing new access to a variety of goods and services; many Americans’ standards of living improved, while the gap between rich and poor grew.

Makes it sound like that’s all these businesses did was “concentrate wealth,” when in fact the standard of living throughout USA surged because of them. Highly biased writing here.

p. 62. Key Concept 6.1, III.

C) Economic instability inspired agrarian activists to create the People’s (Populist) Party, which called for a stronger governmental role in regulating the American economic system.

Interesting that while the “People’s Party” and the “Whig Party” and the “Republican Party” are mentioned by name and (somewhat) identified by their goals, the Democrat Party and its goal of protecting and preserving slavery is not.

p. 63. Key Concept 6.2, I.

C) Increasing public debates over assimilation and Americanization accompanied the growth of international migration. Many immigrants negotiated compromises between the cultures they brought and the culture they found in the United States.

D) In an urban atmosphere where the access to power was unequally distributed, political machines thrived, in part by providing immigrants and the poor with social services.

Important here to show that immigrants brought in systems that did NOT for the most part understand/were not compatible with common law or latitudinarian religion (i.e., they came from monarchies or quasi-authoritarian countries and mostly practiced Roman Catholicism.) KEY POINT FOR AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM

p. 63. Key Concept 6.2, I.

E) Corporations’ need for male and female clerical workers as well as increased access to educational institutions, fostered the growth of a distinctive middle class. A growing amount of leisure time also helped expand consumer culture.

Corporations supported education because of the need for an educated workforce, NOT more clerical workers.

p. 64. Key Concept 6.2, II.

C) As migrant populations increased in number and the American bison population was decimated, competition for land and resources in the West among white settlers, American Indians, and Mexican Americans led to an increase in violent conflict.  

“bison were decimated” makes it sound like this was the result of “migrant populations.” Three major studies showed that Indians were already on a path to exterminate bison and that whites merely sped up the process. Remove.

p. 68. Key Concept 7.1, I.

C) Episodes of credit and market instability in the early 20th century, in particular the Great Depression, led to calls for a stronger financial regulatory system.

Several studies dispute that “credit” instability led to the Great Crash. Most scholars simply don’t know what definitively caused the crash. Eugene White argued that the technological lag of the ticker-tape contributed. Smoot-Hawley was a contributory factor according to most. The international gold standard was a contributory factor.

p. 68-70. Key Concept 7.1

No mention of Progressives’ desire to control peoples’ lives, including attack on Coca-Cola, then Prohibition, which was overwhelmingly supported by the elites. Public health and public school movements were part of this.

p. 70. Key Concept 7.1, III.

C) Although the New Deal did not end the Depression, it left a legacy of reforms and regulatory agencies and fostered a long-term political realignment in which many ethnic groups, African Americans, and working-class communities identified with the Democratic Party.

“Reform” is a loaded term. Many of these “reforms” are exploding in our faces, such as Social Security, FSLIC which led to the Savings and Loan debacle of 1980s, questionable effect of minimum wage laws, especially on minorities in the 1950s, vast centralization of power. Omit. Should say that the New Deal “put in place many changes whose impact to the present is still debated.”

Throughout, way too much emphasis on migration/immigration.

p. 73. Key Concept 7.3, I.

C) The American victory in the Spanish-American War led to the U.S. acquisition of island territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific, an increase in involvement in Asia, and the suppression of a nationalist movement in the Philippines.

Needs “as well as the Congressional Teller Amendment requiring the U.S. to divest itself of territory acquired in war, the first example of this in human history.”

p. 74. Key Concept 7.3, II.

B) Although the American Expeditionary Forces played a relatively limited role in combat, the U.S.’s entry helped tip the balance of the conflict in favor of the Allies.

This is simply not correct. The Allies were out of men, and Americans were in the very center of the Ardennes offensive.

p. 74. Key Concept 7.3, II.

C) Despite Wilson’s deep involvement in postwar negotiations, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations.

No indication that Wilson’s “14 Points” were unobtainable and often laughable, highly damaging both economically and demographically, and were agreed to so that Allies could get specific, material gains at no cost. Rewrite.

p. 74-75. Key Concept 7.3, II. and III. (World War II section)

Again, war without battles and leaders is meaningless. Need Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, Battle of the Bulge, Midway, Iwo Jima, Okinawa at the very least.

p. 77. Key Concept 8.1, I.

B) Concerned by expansionist Communist ideology and Soviet repression, the United States sought to contain communism through a variety of measures, including major military engagements in Korea and Vietnam.

It wasn’t “concern” with expansionism communism—it was EXPANSIONIST COMMUNISM. Wording makes it sound like it wasn’t a problem, only our perception was. Include “Loss of China to Communists, revelations of vast spy rings in Roosevelt/Truman administrations, Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb long before it was expected, invasion of South Korea all supported concept of containment.”

p. 81. Key Concept 8.2, III.

B) Liberal ideas found expression in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which attempted to use federal legislation and programs to end racial discrimination, eliminate poverty, and address other social issues. A series of Supreme Court decisions expanded civil rights and individual liberties.

Needs qualifier that these programs have been massive mistakes, that poverty did not fall after 1973, that illegitimacy and single-motherhood were the direct results of AFDC and that this contributed to massive federal deficits.

p. 83. Key Concept 8.3, II.

A) Mass culture became increasingly homogenous in the postwar years, inspiring challenges to conformity by artists, intellectuals, and rebellious youth.

Questionable. The indicators of “homogenous culture” were, as I argue, largely reactions to much larger social and demographic shifts that were exactly the opposite.

p. 86. Key Concept 9.2, I.

C) Employment increased in service sectors and decreased in manufacturing, and union membership declined.

Needs to say, “But the fastest growing sector was government, not service or manufacturing.”

p. 86. Key Concept 9.2, I.

D) Real wages stagnated for the working and middle class amid growing economic inequality.

Questionable. Those 14 MILLION who got net new jobs in 1980s had no income prior to this period. Studies of savings and wealth often overlooked such things as growing home values and government-supplied goodies, such as retirement in Social Security and business-supplied health insurance. I’d remove D altogether.

p. 89. Key Concept 9.3, II.

C) Conflicts in the Middle East and concerns about climate change led to debates over U.S. dependence on fossil fuels and the impact of economic consumption on the environment.

These started much earlier and were substantially over by 2010 with fracking and U.S. oil discoveries. Although there are continuing discussions about the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change, few people any more worry about U.S. oil imports as a major factor of foreign policy.


Image: "Embarkation of the Pilgrims" by Robert Walter Weir -  Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

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