After watching Hamilton the musical, I had an urge to self-study the US founders and revolutionaries in greater depth than what I’d received in high school.
So I read a few biographies and histories about the revolution, and that led to a long-term fascination with US history, which has been growing ever since.
If you’re wondering how to teach yourself United States history from scratch, primarily through books and online courses, and without schooling or teachers, then this guide is for you. It provides you with a step-by-step roadmap for self-learning the subject.
If you successfully complete this guide — scratch that, even if you just do half of it — you’ll be more familiar with US history than the majority of US citizens.
You’ll also be better at developing informed opinions about contemporary issues, not to mention debating them, since historical references are one of the best and most persuasive types of evidence.
1. Watch Crash Course US History for an Overview
Crash Course US History is an entertaining and informative 49-video online course that’ll take you from the colonial period to the Obama presidency, along the way summarizing the key concepts, people, and events of US History.
It’s designed for beginners but also manages to approximately follow the AP US History course curriculum as it appeared in 2013. This should be a great starting point for the person looking to get a thousand-foot view of the subject.
Another Option: For a beginner course that is more in-depth and also offers practice problems and quizzes, check out Khan Academy’s AP/College US history online course.
2) Read A Little History of the United States
A Little History of the United States is the perfect survey text. It covers 500 years of US history in just over 300 hundred pages. The chapters are short and it’s not overly detailed but still manages to cover the most important topics, events, and threads of US history.
And the writing style really pulls you into the world. There are a lot of engrossing stories, which make you feel like you were there, whether that’s working with Harriet Tubman in the underground railroad or eating breakfast with Andrew Carnegie.
3. Take a Few Online US History Courses for Beginners
There are dozens of great online courses covering various aspects of US history, from Yale lectures covering war periods like the Revolution and the Civil War to The Great Course’s expansive series on the turning points of American history.
Below are some of my favorite free online courses for self-learning American history:
- The American Revolution: This free self-paced Yale online course traces the revolution from the rise of rebellious attitudes through the war to the founding of the new nation.
- The Civil War and Reconstruction Era: Also a Yale online course, this one explores the causes of the civil war, the major battles, and the Reconstruction era. The lecturer is captivating and extremely knowledgeable about his subject matter.
- American Education Reform: History, Policy, Practice: This Coursera course discusses the history of the US education system, a contentious topic these days, and the many successful and failed attempts to reform it.
The Great Courses also has a lot of fabulous lecture-based history courses, such as The Turning Points in American History, which shows how history is often a study of choices. A long and well-prepared series, you’ll learn the 48 turning points of American history.
The Great Courses also have a popular one on the Vietnam War that I want to take when I have some free time. I didn’t get to learn much about this in school so I’m keen on studying up.
The courses on their site can be pricey as standalone products, so I’d recommend signing up for the Wondrium/Great Courses subscription ($20 per month) if you plan on using lecture courses as a main component of your self-education.
With it, you’ll gain access to 600 high-quality Great courses as well hundreds of documentary series as well.
Regardless of which courses you choose to take, consider doing 2-3 before moving on to the more reading-heavy portion of the roadmap.
4. Read a Biography on Your Favorite American Figure
Reading biographies is one of the most exciting ways to study US history. You get to hear a gripping story about an active, influential, and intelligent individual who played a big role in defining moments of US history.
Because of their narrative structure, they’re also an easy way to break into history reading if you find the subject’s big, dense books intimidating.
Select 2-3 biographies and read them. If there’s a specific time period you want to investigate, consider reading biographies about people who were active in that time.
Below are some of the most exalted US figures and their respective exalted biographies:
- Benjamin Franklin: America’s founding grandfather, a polymath, a printer, a writer, a statesman, and an inventor — read about him if you want to see an autodidact in action. (Recommended biography here, one of my favs).
- Abigail Adams: The sharpening rock and testing ground for the ideas of the second president, and an accomplished woman, abolitionist, and women’s education advocate. . (Recommended biography here.)
- Alexander Hamilton: Another self-educated polymath, statesman, financial thinker, writer, poet, essayist for the Federalist Papers. (Recommended biography here.)
- Frederick Douglass: Escaped from slavery, an influential social reformer, abolitionist, orator, statesman, and writer. His speeches are still used as study material by today’s politicians. (Recommended autobiography here.)
- Abraham Lincoln: Primarily self-taught, presided over the Civil War, held strong in his moral conviction to keep the union together and to end slavery. A man worthy of study and emulation. (Recommended biography here, focuses on his political genius)
- Teddy Roosevelt: Rugged outdoorsman, conservationist, voracious reader, founder of the FDA and expander of the natural park system. Oh, and he was president too. (Recommended biography here, inspired me to read more, documents his early life).
- Susan B Anthony: Rebel, writer, women’s rights activist, and labor reformer, she played a lead role in the women’s suffrage and labor rights movements of the 19th century (Recommended biography here.)
- Martin Luther King Jr: Civil rights movement leader, minister, orator, writer, and an almost unstoppable force of good and social progress. (Recommended biography here.)
Biographies are also an underused method for finding mentors. By imitating the habits and thinking of great people, you can yourself become great.
To this day I still wonder what Alexander Hamilton or Frederick Douglass might say in reply to a complaint that I was “too tired from my bowl of pasta to read or study.”
Surely they’d both slap me verbally for letting my laziness interfere with my ability to seize what is perhaps the greatest privilege of our information era — thousands of years of knowledge and wisdom an Amazon order away.
If you really admire one person, there’s a good chance that there are numerous fantastic biographies about them.
There are hundreds, for example, about Abraham Lincoln, each portraying the man in a different way, approaching his life from a different angle. There’s even one on Lincoln as a writer. It seems as if a new Lincoln book comes out each year.
5. Study a Few Modern Classics of American History
Now it’s time to dig into one period or event that you find fascinating. Pick 1-2 well-researched and critically acclaimed works of US history that have heavily influenced how the US public and its scholars think about the event or period it covers.
THe great thing about history as an academic field is that its most notable works are usually also extremely well-written. They tackle the big questions in a scholarly way while still making it interesting to the layperson. The same can’t be said for most other fields.
Here are some of the most influential US histories ever written:
- 1776: David McCullough educates you on the Revolutionary War in 1776 from the British and American perspectives.
- The Radicalism of the American Revolution: Gordon Wood makes a case that the American revolutionaries were doing something incredibly radical.
- Battle Cry of Freedom: James McPherson provides us with perhaps the best account we have of the Civil War years, as well as an eye-opening 200 pages dealing with the social and political events that led up to it — The Missouri Compromise, Dred Scott Case, etc., This is one of my favorite histories — not dry at all, so much instantly in these years.
- Black Reconstruction: W.E.B Du Bois teaches us about the aftermath of the Civil War and the role of black Americans in the Reconstruction era.
- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: Dee Brown, in 1970, opened the public’s eyes to the atrocities committed against Native Americans in the 19th century.
- The Great Crash: With wit and economic mastery, James Galbraith recounts the 1929 stock market crash and argues that the cause was unrestrained market speculation.
- The Best and the Brightest: David Halberstram attempts to uncover the origins of the Vietnam War.
Consider making history reading a background study activity you’re always doing regardless of your current focus, perhaps at night after dinner, like Jefferson recommends:
“There are portions of the day too when the mind should be eased, particularly after dinner it should be applied to lighter occupation: history is of this kind. It exercises principally the memory. Reflection also indeed is necessary but not generally in a laborious degree.” — Thomas Jefferson, Letters to Thomas Mann
There’s so much to learn from this genre. In just one history book, you can learn important concepts and facts about economics, sociology, war, politics, and other subjects.
For more on why reading history books is a useful way to spend your study time, check out my article on why every self-education plan should include history.
6. Start Reading One American Essay Per Night
A while back I got an essay anthology called The Glorious American Essay. I’ve been slowly making my way through it, reading one essay per night.
The book contains 100 of the best American essays spanning from colonial times to the present day, from Thomas Paine and Walt Whitman to H.L. Mencken and Zadie Smith.
It’s ordered chronologically, so reading it is as it’s structured makes for a great US history education.
The essays aren’t all history essays, but each one does give us insight into what was going on intellectually and culturally in American at the time the essay was written.
Because of the range of essays, it’s also a great way to develop intellectual range. You’ll read political arguments, nature essays, scientific articles, social and literary criticism, and more.
7. Tackle the Oxford History of the United States Series
The Crash Course and Little History of the US are great beginner surveys but they lack depth. If you want a full sweeping, scholarly account of US history, from colonization all the way to the second Bush presidency, consider tackling the Oxford History of the United States Book Series.
It’s thirteen books long, and is meant to be read chronologically. By tackling the whole thing, you’ll gain a remarkably well-rounded understanding of US history, as the series offers a look at the US from multiple vantage points — political, economic, social, cultural, and diplomatic.
I’ve read a few books on the list, including Battle Cry of Freedom, but not all of them. I’m thinking of making this a future reading project.
If you have a Kindle, you can buy the entire 13-book series for $132. Otherwise, you can buy the books separately. On Amazon, they hover around 20 bucks.
8. Choose a Specific Era in American History & Dive Deep
By this point, you should have a solid grip on the main trends and events of US history. If asked, you also should also be able to state which era, event, or type of history is most interesting to you.
Now that you’ve acquired some breath, it’s time to go deep into that topic, whether it’s the American Revolution (my favorite), the Gilded Age, or something as specific as the Economic History of pre-1860 United States.
Maybe you love the presidency and want to read a biography on every single president. Maybe you want to create a book-focused self-directed study plan to learn more about WW1.
Whatever you’re curious about, go study it. Compile a list of books on the topic and read them. Find online courses covering the topic. Perhaps visit the sites where the events occurred or the museums where the artifacts of the events are stored.
You’re at the point in your self-education where you can be entirely self-directed about what you use to study, and you have the ability to truly turn yourself into a history buff in various topics in the field.
If you want to learn how to successfully tackle subjects on your own, check out my article on how to become an autodidact, where you’ll find the steps to learning new subjects and skills. Step five covers how to create a self-directed study plan, which is applicable to someone trying to go deep into a part of US history.
Can You Teach Yourself US History?
You can learn U.S. history outside of school by taking online courses and by reading history books and textbooks. If you have discipline and a strong interest in the subject, there’s no reason you can’t become more educated in US history than someone studying it in school.
Bottom Line: Self-Learning US History
Engaging in self-directed study in US history will ground your thinking and opinions about today’s issues in history, making them sharper and more persuasive.
You’ll also better understand America by taking some time to acquaint yourself with its fascinating and complex past.
If, after this guide, you’re still interested in learning more about history but want to take a wider view and study other parts of the world, consider checking out my guide How to Self-Learn Western History.