Blog Great Books History Teachers

American History/Literature Capstone Essay

I have found that some of the most rewarding learning happens for my students when they are 1) challenged with high expectations, 2) given academic freedom to study what interests them, and 3) they work 1:1 with an advisor.

Here is how I implement this in my AP US History classroom. Enjoy!

APUSH Capstone Essay

Directions: You will produce an essay of approximately 2,000 words. In this essay you will explore a question of your own design related to one of the key themes of AP US History:

Theme 1: American and National Identity

Theme 2: Politics and Power

Theme 3: Work, Exchange, and Technology

Theme 4: Culture and Society

Theme 5: Migration and Settlement

Theme 6: Geography and the Environment

Your essay should:

  • Address a specific question and have a thesis. You should work with Mr. Baker to craft this question
  • Include a literary section which explores your question through the lens of a great American novel or literary work
  • Feature at least two key quotations from your selected novel
  • Include at least one historical case study
  • Use the past tense in the history sections, and the literary present in the literature section.
  • Be 1800-2200 words, excluding citations
  • Conform to the Chicago (Turabian) citation style with footnotes
  • Utilize at least two academic sources (in addition to the textbook and your selected literary reading)
  • Contain a bibliography
  • Be clear, concise, and make excellent use of rhetoric
  • Be typed and free of errors
  • Display a profound sense of wonder

Example questions and novels (only select one novel!)


  • What makes a person an American? (My Ántonia)
  • Do ‘good’ and ‘evil’ truly exist?—can we see good and evil in American history? (To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlett Letter)
  • To what extent has American society been a ‘just’ society? (To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
  • How has war shaped the United States and its people? (Red Badge of Courage)
  • John Winthrop wanted Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a “city upon a hill.” Has the United States lived up to this goal? Is America exceptional? (any of the books, really)
  • Discuss the relationship between civilization and the wilderness in American history. (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)


Due Dates

Novel choice approved by Mr. Baker: 22JAN2019

Historical case study approved by Mr. Baker: 19FEB19

Research question approved by Mr. Baker: 5MAR2019

Annotations due: 8MAR2019

Rough Draft submitted: 25MAR2019

Final Draft submitted: 16APR2019

Sample Outline


  • Grabber (introduce the theme)
  • Introduce the novel
  • Introduce the case study
  • Pose your question
  • State your answer (thesis)

Literary Section

  • State what you will argue in this section
  • Explore your question through the plot, characters, themes etc. of the novel.
  • Provide an answer to your question and support it with textual evidence

Historical Case Study

  • State what you will argue in this section
  • Explore your question through a historical case
  • Provide an answer to your question and support it with historical evidence


  • Draw connections between the literary and historical sections
  • Synthesize
  • Definitively answer your question