Dates to Memorize

Some people seem to believe that the essence of studying history is memorizing dates--but they're wrong! In some cases, history is simply about figuring out what actually happened. Sometimes that's very difficult or impossible. But even when we can know exactly what happened, a historian's work has only just begun. That's because the essence of studying history is analyzing why things happened. That means analyzing how things were influenced by other things that happened, how they influenced later history, and comparing historical events to each other. (It's no coincidence that the College Board and all good history teachers want you to do exactly those things in your history essays!)

In short, history is about understanding, not memorizing.

But dates are useful, because in order to understand something, you need to keep a sense of when things happen.

So, does that mean you need to memorize a bunch of dates to do well in AP US History?

First, let's talk about your class in school. Of course you want to get A's in that class. But I don't know anything about your teacher, so I don't know how he or she will teach the class, or anything like that. You'll have to figure that stuff out yourself. If your teacher wants you to memorize a bunch of dates... I'm sorry for you, my friend! (If you are one of my students, as you figure out what your teacher expects you to learn, we'll do our best to make sure you get A's, even if that means memorizing a bunch of dates.)

Now let's talk about the AP and SAT II tests.

The truth is: You don't need to memorize a bunch of dates to do well on either the AP or SAT II US History tests, and memorizing a bunch of dates is a huge waste of time that you could use much more productively.

As you probably know, the APUSH test has changed a little recently, but it's not actually a big change: someone who would've done well on the old test would do well on the new test. The College Board made the change because the APUSH test had a bad reputation: a lot of people thought that doing well on the test required you to MEMORIZE lots of stuff. That was a misunderstanding, and it caused students lots of pain. Many teachers would have their students memorize loads of material, and then their students still wouldn't do very well; so the teachers would have their students memorize even more material.... But no matter how much material students memorized, they often still didn't do very well.

For example, I've read (in The New York Times) of students memorizing the dates to the Pequot War.

I mean, imagine that. Memorizing the dates of the Pequot War.

Despite the stupidity of wasting time on something like that rather than studying actual issues, the author of the story seemed surprised that those students would not get good scores on the AP test.

But of course the AP test doesn't try to test such stupid little details! The College Board never tested anyone on the dates of the Pequot War. Never, ever! Not even in the bad old days.

Although you don't need to memorize very many dates, you do need to understand things that happened, and if you understand the things themselves pretty well, you will have a fairly good sense of when they happened.

Following The New York Times, let's use the Pequot War as an exmaple. There will never be a question like this:

X. The dates of the Pequot War are:
A) 1631-1634B) 1633-1637C) 1633-1639
D) 1634-1638E) 1637-1641

I laugh just imagining such questions. That's because what the College Board wants to test is COMPREHENSION and SKILLS, not just memorization. What skills or comprehension would such a question test? (And in the age of Google on your phones, why would anyone, even professional historians, ever need to memorize the dates of the Pequot War?)

It's unlikely that anything about the Pequot War would be on the test, but if something did show up, it would not ask you to show that you've memorized the dates. Instead, it would want you to show that you COMPREHEND the issues that the Pequot War involved, such as the American Indians's response to the English colonies of New England, misunderstandings between the colonists and the Indians even when they were allied, and the colonists's attitudes to the Indians.

To me, that's easier than memorizing the dates, but maybe you think it's harder. Either way, memorizing the dates is definitely not helpful. Memorizing the names of the most famous colonists and Native Americans involved in the war might be a little helpful, but not very much. Instead, what you have to do is COMPREHEND the issues: What were the causes of the Pequot War? Why did it turn out the way it did? How did it effect later American history?

The Pequot War might come up on a multiple choice question on the SAT II, or (more likely) you might get a chance to write about it in a short answer or essay on the AP test. So you'd like to know who fought in that war and what they were fighting over. (That's COMPREHNSION!) If you know that stuff, you'll have a good sense of when it happened: you'll know it couldn't have happened before the great migration of Puritans to New England, and that it wasn't too long after that had started. So if you understand it, your sense of when it happened will be something like the 1630s, 1640s, maybe even the 1650s or 1660s. If you would guess that it happened early in the history of colonial New England (1630s, 1640s, 1650s, something like that), that's good enough for the dates!

The right answer on the previous question is D; but "1634-1638" doesn't mean anything to anyone. On the other hand, "not too long after the great migration of Puritans to New England had started" is a much more useful thing to know, and that would be good enough to use on an AP essay. (Even in an essay, knowing the exact dates would not matter much.)

If the Pequot War were to come up on a multiple choice question, it would look something like this:

X. The image above represents the most significant battle of:
A) the Civil WarB) the Pequot War
C) Pontiac's RebellionD) Red Cloud's War
E) the War of 1812

Would that be a hard question? Yes, it would be one of the hardest questions on that test. Still, you should probably recognize that image even if it is the only thing you remember about the Pequot War. But even if you didn't recognize the image, the legend in the top-left corner of the image says something about New England. (Hopefully you look closely enough to see that before you give up on the question.) Knowing that this battle has something to do with New England practically eliminates the Civil War (because no important battles of the Civil War were fought in New England) and, if you know about it, Pontiac's Rebellion (which was fought in the "northwest," around the Ohio River valley and the Great Lakes), and you might even know enough to eliminate Red Cloud's War (which was fought in the west). Eliminating one or two options gives you a good chance of guessing correctly.

In fact, the Pequot War is the only option that was fought primarily in New England, so even if the only thing you know about the Pequot War is where it happened, regardless of the dates, you should have a very good chance of guessing the correct answer--and if you understand the Pequot War at all, you will definitely know that it happened in New England.

So, in the first place you should be able to make a pretty good guess even with hardly any knowledge of the Pequot War. But secondly, you actually should recognize that image. It's the most famous image of the Pequot War, and it will appear in any textbook that covers the Pequot War.

However, you would probably get it wrong if you'd wasted a bunch of time memorizing the dates of the Pequot War rather than trying to understand why it happened and how it affected subsequent American history. That's why memorizing the dates of the Pequot War would be a complete waste of time. Those students and their teachers must have been completely clueless, and it is no wonder that they did badly on the test in spite of all their effort.

(If you are one of my students, I will emphasize this point repeatedly: Work smarter, not harder.)

Anyway, the Pequot War doesn't matter to us right now; we'll study it when we get to it. What matters is that you realize that you don't need to memorize the dates of the Pequot War, or anything else like that, to answer the questions about it correctly. Every single multiple choice question on the AP and SAT II US History tests is like that. Yes, every single one!

So, why would you bother memorizing any dates at all?

For two reasons:

First, remember that what you really need is to understand why things happened, and sometimes it's easier to understand that when you know some dates. It helps you keep things straight in your mind. This is the only real reason to memorize some dates.

But secondly, the AP essay and short answer questions often use dates as boundaries. For example, a question might ask something like, "Describe the economy and society of Virginia from 1607 to 1676." Now that's not as hard as it might seem: the College Board doesn't just choose random dates. 1607 and 1676 are the dates of two of the most important events in the history of Colonial America! Even if you didn't actually memorize the date of the founding of Jamestown or Bacon's Rebellion (which would not be good), you might even guess what the College Board meant in that question. Many of the essay and short answer questions are bounded by dates like that, so you'd like to recognize the dates of the major turning points in American history.

Then, once we get to the main part of American history, when there are Presidents, we'll almost never memorize a date. Instead, we'll memorize the Presidents!

I recommend memorizing the Presidents of the United States to all students. It's much easier than it sounds, especially since we'll review it often. (If you're in my class, I guarantee that you'll memorize them without even trying.)

And of course there are some tricks....

Here is the first trick: Except for the first election, which was exceptional, presidential elections occur every four years, and the election years are evenly divisible by four: 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812, and so on. (If you don't know that those numbers are divisble by four, and you want to understand that, talk to me. I don't mind teaching a little algebra/arithmetic in my class!)

The next trick: Except for the first election, which was exceptional, the president's term begins the year after the election. So, Adams was elected in 1796, and his term began the next year, in 1797. In the same way, Jefferson was elected for the first time in 1800, and his term began (and Adams's ended) in 1801. And so on. On the chart below you can see the pattern.

Once you've learned the presidents, instead of memorizing the dates of all the events, you only need to remember which term the events happened in. For example, do you need to know the exact dates of the Judiciary Act or the Jay Treaty? Surely not! (I shudder to imagine some poor students memorizing the dates of such things.) On the other hand, if you don't even know that they happened when George Washington was the President, you could be in trouble because you evidently don't understand the events very well!

But that's the trick: Don't just try to memorize the presidential terms. Instead, try to understand the events well enough to remember which term they happened in. IF YOU UNDERSTAND THE EVENTS, YOU CAN USUALLY REMEMBER WHICH PRESIDENTIAL TERM THEY HAPPENED IN.

In class, I'll give you quizzes in which you'll have to put the events in the proper term.

Just in case it helps you, I've even listed the events in order (when it is possible to sort them out that way).

So, I hope you're ready for this....

Here is the mother lode of dates and events to memorize: Elections, Presidents, and Events. (This is incomplete right now....)

Good luck, and may the force be with you.

Index to Jonathan's Guide to US History

Index to Jonathan's Guides