SAT Reading section historical timeline & themes

From A+ Club Lesson Planner & Study Guide

Historical timeline for SAT Reading section historical passages

Note: the College Board launched a new, digital format of the SAT test as of the March 9, 2024 U.S. national testing date. (The International SAT and PSAT were changed to digital formats in 2023.) See here for the changes. This and some other pages on this wiki regarding SAT prep were created for the old, paper version of the test. The skills and strategies remain the same, although the format of the test has changed. The largest change is in the Reading passages, which are paragraph- and not page-length now. Grammar and punctuation questions remain largely the same.

See SAT Digital Reading and Writing Test quick start guide for strategies, skills, and techniques for the new, digital exam, and Category:SAT digital test for related pages.

  • Historical passages are often difficult for students
    • language and context of the passages are unfamiliar
    • while historical knowledge is not required to answer questions, it is helpful

BIG IDEAS[edit | edit source]

  • historical literacy can help students understand passage context and author purpose in historical passages
  • students are NOT required to know the particular history, as questions are "evidence-based"
    • but it helps to know the time period and/or historical times, people and perspectives
  • use dates of major wars to identify historical context
    • wars mark historical turning points
      • therefore ideas, discussions and themes are different before and after wars
  • you can also isolate non-historical possible answers because the language or perspective would not apply to that particular period or historical actors

Major wars timeline[edit | edit source]

  • at a minimum, knowing the dates of major 18th-21st century wars will help identify historical context
    • i.e.: identifying a document from, say, 1844, it is helpful to know that it was written after the War of 1812 and before both the Mexican-American and Civil wars.
    • knowing that helps understand the perspective of the author, as the Mexican-American War changed American attitudes towards slavery and sectionalism and broke down the Compromise of 1820 that was born of the "Era of Good Feelings" that followed the War of 1812.
Major wars timeline
Major Wars
  • 1775-81: American Revolution *
  • 1789-95: French Revolution **
  • 1812-15: War of 1812
  • 1846-48: Mexican-American War
  • 1861-65: U.S. Civil War
  • 1898: Spanish-American War
  • 1914-18: WWI (U.S. 1917-1918)
  • 1939-45: WWII (U.S. 1941-1945)
  • 1959-75: Vietnam War (U.S. ground war: 1965-72)
  • 2002-2021: Afghanistan/ War on Terror
  • 2003-11: Iraq War (Iraqi Insurgency: 2003-2006)
Other wars to know:
  • 1803-1815: Napoleonic Wars
  • 1904-1905: Russo-Japanese War
  • 1910-1920: Mexican Revolution
  • 1917: Russian Revolution
  • 1931-32: Japanese Invasion of Manchuria
  • 1950-53: Korean War
  • 1990-91: Gulf War
*American Revolution timeline:
 - 1765-1775: Colonial agitation against British rule & laws
 - 1774: fist Continental Congress & other colonial organization in opposition of British rule
 - 1775-76: Thomas Paine's "Common Sense", Declaration of Indepenndence 
 - 1775-1781: War
 - 1783: Treaty of Paris formally ends War
**French Revolution timeline:
- 1789-91: Estates General 
- 1792-93: Overthrow and execution of King Louis XV
- 1793-94: Jacobin Rule and Reign of Terror
- 1795-1799: The Directory
- 1799: Napoleon seizes power

Historical terminology[edit | edit source]

  • abolition/ abolitionism / emancipation = movement to end slavery
    • the 13th amendment "abolished" slavery (1865)
  • civil rights, Jim Crow, Segregation, Civil Rights Movement
    • the 13th, 14th & 15th amendments, which followed the Civil War, abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship for freed slaves, and guaranteed the right to vote by former male slaves, respectively
    • those protections were only as good as the laws were implemented
      • "Reconstruction" = the period from 1865-1877, during which Union armies occupied the South and enforced "reconstruction" era protections of the rights of the former slaves
      • Reconstruction failed to fully implement those laws, and "segregation"
  • disenfranchised
    • = not having the vote (franchise)
  • domestic
    • in politics/ economics = the homeland, or "home" politics, economy, etc.
  • franchise
    • = the vote, the right to vote
  • imperialism
  • "Manifest destiny" = movement for U.S. westward expansion across the continent (term coined in 1845)
    • U.S. imperialism commences with the taking of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Philippines after the Spanish-American War (1898)
  • popular sovereignty
    • political theory from 1850s, pushed by Sen. Stephen Douglas, that people of the states themselves should decide if slavery was to be allowed
  • prohibition = movement to ban alcohol
    • in the U.S., the 18th amendment banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol (1917)
      • the 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment (1933)
  • "republican motherhood"
  • states rights
    • the that states have distinct powers and laws from the federal government
      • or, = an assertion of those powers over federal power
      • related to "nullification" and the "nullification crisis"
        • = when a state "nullifies" a federal law
        • = a crisis because it puts state power above federal power (in violation of the "Supremacy cause")
  • suffrage = "the vote" or the right to vote
    • the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for male former slaves (1869)
    • women who championed or protested for the vote between the Civil War and 1919 were known as "Suffragettes"
  • suffragette = a woman who advocated, often in public protest, for women's suffrage
  • tariff = import duties (taxes)
    • the tariff was a dominant political issue in the first +/- 120 years of the country
      • low tariff advocates tended to be states that exported agricultural products (esp. cotton) and imported manufactured goods
        • early Democrats (Jeffersonians) were anti-tariff
        • low-tariff advocates argue/argued that import taxes punish consumers and create high prices of domestic as well as foreign goods
      • high-tariff advocates tended to be manufacturing states
        • Whigs (Hamiltonians) and early Republicans were pro-tariff
        • high-tariff advocates were/ are called "protectionists" in that they want to "protect" American industry and jobs from foreign competition (imports)
  • temperance or temperance movement = anti-alcohol / prohibition of alcohol movements
  • women's suffrage = right to vote for women
    • in U.S. the 19th Amendment guaranteed the right of women to vote (1919)
  • women's rights =
    • the 19th Amendment guaranteed political equality for women, but not equality in economics, education, etc.
    • so passages on women's rights after 1919 will focus on those aspects of equality, not suffrage

Historical actors to know[edit | edit source]

By knowing these persons and the periods and themes they represent, you can relate to them any unfamiliar authors on the test who have a similar outlook or historical significance

  • Susan B. Anthony, 1820-1907
    • women's suffrage leader and abolitionist
  • William Jennings Bryan, 1860-1925
    • Democratic leader and candidate for President
    • promoted "populism" and "soft money" (silver)
  • Edmund Burke, 1729-1797
    • Conservative British politician and critic of the French Revolution
      • Burke argued against radicalism and destruction of institutions
    • supported U.S. colonies against British suppression of colonial dissent
      • articulated theory of "salutary neglect" which argued that direct British control of the American colonies was undesirable, whereas when British policies towards the colonies were hands-off, it constituted "salutary" or healthy, neglect
  • Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895
    • born in slavery, escaped slavery and became nation's prominent abolitionist and civil rights advocate
  • Stephen Douglas, 1813-1861
    • Illinois Democratic Senator who championed ""Popular Sovereignty" as a solution to the pre-Civil War problem of the spread of slavery across the continent and for entry of new states
    • Douglas famously debated Lincoln during the Illinois Senate race of 1858
  • Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865
    • note that Lincoln opposed the Mexican-American War (1846-48)
  • John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873
    • British politician, philosopher; supported women's suffrage; proponent of utilitarianism (the idea of maximal "utility" to create maximum benefit)
  • Thomas Paine
    • radical, pro-revolution
    • wrote "Common Sense"
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1815-1902
    • women's suffrage; organizer of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention
  • Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862
    • mid-19th century essayist, abolitionist; championed civil rights and dissent in "Civil Disobedience"
  • Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805-1859
    • French aristocrat who authored a study of the nature of American democracy, "Democracy in America"
  • Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-`797
    • early British advocate of women's rights; considered founder of feminist philosophy

Themes & events timelines[edit | edit source]

1500s-1700s[edit | edit source]

  • the SAT will not test documents from these periods
    • it is useful to know the general timeline, anyway
16th-18th centuries
  • colonization of Americas by European powers
  • Early British colonial settlements:
    • 1584 Roanoke
    • 1607 Jamestown/ Virginia Company
    • Mass Bay Colony / Pilgrims / Puritans
    • New England small farms/ townships
  • 1676: Bacon's Rebellion
    • = Virginia planters v. settlers moving westward

1700s General:

  • Enlightenment / Age of Reason
  • European economic / political expansion/ colonization/ slavery / mercantilism
  • U.S. colonial westward expansion
  • U.S. Independence / French Revolution
  • "Republican motherhood": the idea that women's role is to raise educated, civic-minded men
1700s timeline
- 1750s: French Indian War (America) / Seven Years War (Europe) 
- end of salutary neglect
- 1760s: British colonial rule, including: 
 - trade restrictions
 - taxes
 - dispute over representation in Parliament

1775-81 American Revolution & early American Republic

- 1776: Declaration of Independence
- 1787: US Constitution (ratified 1789)
- 1789: US Gov operates under constitution
- 1789-95: George Washington President, consolidation of the presidency, assertion federal powers
- 1790s: growing partisan divide between Adams/Hamilton Federalists (pro-central power, pro-tariff, pro-national bank) and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans (anti-strong central gov, pro-states, anti-tariff and anti-bank)
- 1798: Alien & Sedition Acts enacted as part of bitter US political divide over France-Britain wars

1789-95: French Revolution

- 1789: Estates General called but Third Estate (commoners) creates rival National Assembly, hurch property is nationalized by the National Assembly, Declaration of the Rights of Man issued
- 1790-93: Nobility abolished, Haitian Revolution starts, new Constitution enacted, King attempts to flee Paris and is tried and executed (1792-3)
- 1793-94: French Rev: Reign of Terror ("Jacobin Club" = anti-royalists who seize power in 1793), fall of Jacobins (1795), the Directory takes over (governing council)
- 1799: Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power

1800s[edit | edit source]

19th century
* 1800s general:
- Rise of US political parties 
- US western expansion (new states)
- Slavery / Civil War/ Reconstruction / Segregation
- Social and economic change/ progress
- Rising middle and professional class 
- Industrialization
- Disruption of aristocratic order/ less importance
- Democracy / expanding rights and freedoms

Early 1800s timeline

- 1800: Election of Jefferson called the "Revolution of 1800" = 1st successful transition of power between rival political parties
- 1803: Louisiana Purchase expands US territory west of the Mississippi River
- 1803-1815 Napoleonic Wars
- 1812-1815 War of 1812 (US v Britain)
- 1815-25: Era of Good Feelings
- 1820s: European monarchies restoration / UK industrialization / railroads / telegraph
- 1848: revolutions in Europe (unsuccessful)
- 1848-49: California gold rush
- 1840s-50s: Karl Marx / Irish potato famine / direct British rule in India / Charles Darwin

1820s-1850s Antebellum US:

- 1820, Missouri Comprise (also "Compromise of 1820")
- 1830s, Alexander de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (study of America by French diplomat)
- 1820s-30s, temperance movement (precursor to Second Great Awakening)
- 1831, Nat Turner’s (slave) Rebellion
- 1830s, Indian wars 1830s (also 1870s)
- 1840s-50s, religious movements / Second Great Awakening
> Thoreau/ Emerson/ Transcendentalism, individualism, individual morality, nature
> women's political participation (part of Jacksonian democracy)
> women's suffrage (voting) & rights / franchise / disenfranchisement
- 1848, Seneca Falls/ Declaration of Sentiments
- anti-slavery/ abolition movement / Frederick Douglass / Underground Railroad / Uncle Tom’s Cabin / "Bleeding Kansas" / John Brown's rebellion
Antebellum themes:
- sectional division, political conflict & compromises: 
 >> slavery/territorial expansion /  tariff/ national bank
- 1820s-40s US: railroads/ canals / telegraph
- 1829-1837: Jackson presidency/ Jacksonian Revolution (increased political participation)
- 1834-45: Texas independence (1845 annexation to U.S.)
- Manifest Destiny / western expansion (1830s-1850s)
- 1846-48: Mexican-American War: ends compromise of 1820 due to new states/ territories; leads to heightened North-South division
- 1850: Compromise of 1850 (Stephen Douglas, popular sovereignty)
- 1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act

1861-1865: Civil War

- slavery / states’ rights / union 
- Lincoln / Gettysburg Address / Emancipation Proclamation

1865-1877: Reconstruction

- 13th, 14th, 15th amendments to Constitution (ending slavery, protecting civil rights, & suffrage, i.e.)
- occupation of South by northern troops
- carpetbaggers
- end of Reconstruction = rise of Jim Crow and segregation / rights abuses of blacks

1870s-1890s US

- industrialization / "Gilded Age" / Robber Barons (industry)
- railroads
- urbanization
- labor / industry
- 1896: Spanish-American War: U.S. expansion / colonialization (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii, Philippines)
- 1870s-1890s other
- opening of Japan (Mathew Perry, 1854), Japanese industrialization
- German unification & industrialization
- European imperialism & colonialism / “Scramble for Africa” / Berlin Conference / interventions in China / Opium Wars

1900s[edit | edit source]

20th century
1900s General
- world wars 
- economic growth/ middle class
- automobiles & industry
- social, class & labor conflict
- racial & ethnic awareness, feminism, civil rights and equality
- communism / Cold War

1890s-1910s: Progressive Era

- US: reform / urban conditions / labor / immigration
- UK: suffragette movement (voting, elected office)

1914-1918: WWI

- nationalization (collapse of European monarchies by WWII)
- US entry: 1917-1918
- 1919: Women right to vote in US

1920s: Roaring 20s

- consumerism / rise of middle class
- prohibition
- Jazz Age / Harlem Renaissance


- Great Depression / New Deal/ government intervention in economy, jobs, etc.
- German militarism, invasion of Poland, 1939
- Japan militarism/ expansionism / Russo-Japanese War, 1904 / invasion of Manchuria, 1931 / Pearl Harbor, 1941
- U.S. war mobilization 
1945-1950s post-War
- United Nations / Declaration of Human Rights 
- 1950's middle class / suburbs / television / autos & highways / pop culture
- Civil Rights / Brown v. Board of Edu / protests 
- Korean War (1950-53) / Cold War
- Brown v. Board of Education (desegregation)


- Civil Rights movement/ MLK / March on Washington, 1963
- Vietnam War /protests / youth movements / hippies / popular culture / rock-n-roll
- MLK assassination/ urban riots 


- inflation
- economic decline (“stagflation”)
- feminism 
- Détente (US – USSR) / missile treaties


- Ronald Reagan
- economic growth
- banking / Wall Street scandals
- 1989: collapse of Soviet Union 

1990s/ 2000s General

- digital & medical technologies
- the internet / social media
- globalization
- global warming
- War on Terror / Afghan & Iraq wars / Patriot Act / “surveillance state”

Example of applying historical knowledge or context on SAT Reading[edit | edit source]

Historical knowledge[edit | edit source]

  • College Board practice test 7, 4th passage, question 40:
  • these two passages are from 1840 and 1851
    • 1840 by Alexis de Tocqueville
      • students are likely to have heard of Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who studied American democracy and notions of equality
      • he wrote a book "Democracy in America" with his observations on American social, economic, and political outcomes through the point of view of 1) a French aristocrat; and 2) the effects of democratic and egalitarian views of white Americans
    • 1850 by Harriet Taylor Mill
    • students would be less likely to know Mill, but we can infer from the introduction her arguments, especially as counter to those of a French aristocrat
      • Mill was an important British advocate for women's rights
      • she married the British political philosopher, John Stuart Mill
    • students are likely to know that the 1840s-1850s were a time of reform called the "Second Great Awakening"
      • and that many of these reform movements intersected
        • especially women's rights and abolition of slavery

click EXPAND for elimination based upon historical understanding of the perspectives of these authors:

  • passage perspectives:
    • Tocqueville is an observer and not an advocate,
      • therefore he will speak about how things are (if filtered through his own points of view)
    • Mill is a reformer,
      • therefore, she will speak about how things ought to be (in this case equality between the sexes)
  • Question 40 reads:
Which choice best describes the ways that the two authors conceive of the individual’s proper position in society?
  • and the possible answers are:
A) Tocqueville believes that an individual’s position should be defined in important ways by that individual’s sex, while Mill believes that an individual’s abilities should be the determining factor.
B) Tocqueville believes that an individual’s economic class should determine that individual’s position, while Mill believes that class is not a legitimate consideration. 
C) Tocqueville believes that an individual’s temperament should determine that individual’s position, while Mill believes that temperament should not be a factor in an individual’s position. 
D) Tocqueville believes that an individual’s position should be determined by what is most beneficial to society, while Mill believes it should be determined by what an individual finds most rewarding
  • Since we know that Mill advocates for women's equality, and we know that Tocqueville is an aristocrat, we can eliminate as follows:
  • A)
    • Tocqueville believes that an individual’s position should be defined in important ways by that individual’s sex
      • can't eliminate because aristocrats at the time believed in traditional roles for men and women
    • while Mill believes that an individual’s abilities should be the determining factor.
      • Mill believes in equality for women
    • so we can't eliminate A)
  • B)
    • Tocqueville believes that an individual’s economic class should determine that individual’s position
      • an aristocrat would likely believe this, so we can't eliminate (even if it is not in the text)
    • while Mill believes that class is not a legitimate consideration.
      • Mill is concerned about gender equality and not among the economic classes
    • so eliminate B)
  • C)
    • Tocqueville believes that an individual’s temperament should determine that individual’s position
      • Tocqueville is not concerned with individual "temperament" (character)
    • while Mill believes that temperament should not be a factor in an individual’s position.
      • Mill argues the opposite of that statement, so eliminate
    • however, we can also eliminate this possible answer from a general historical perspective
      • an aristocrat would not care about character in determining social position and instead would argue for birth for that determination
      • an egalitarian would argue the opposite, that character and not birth should define an individual's position in society
    • so eliminate C)
  • D)
    • Tocqueville believes that an individual’s position should be determined by what is most beneficial to society
      • an aristocrat may take this position (and Tocqueville does)
    • while Mill believes it should be determined by what an individual finds most rewarding
      • as an egalitarian, Mill would believe in a more altruistic point of view,
        • i.e., society will benefit from empowerment of individuals and not simply from individuals getting what they each find "most rewarding"
        • (that would be a different, generally, economic point of view regarding the social benefits of individual selfishness, and not the point of view of a mid-19th century egalitarian reformer)
        • (this possible answer is likely intended to deliberately confuse students between Harriett Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill who did advocate for individual protection from state control)
    • so eliminate D)

Historical context & language[edit | edit source]

A) founding and history of the United States.
B) vibrancy and diversity of American culture.
C) worldwide history of struggles for independence.
D) idealism that permeates many aspects of American society

click EXPAND for eliminate based upon the perspective of the 1898/1900's:

  • x B) "diversity" = a modern not a c. 1900 political value or expression
  • x C) "worldwide history" = a modern not a c. 1900 political value or expression (which would be concerned about American and not "worldwide" history)
  • x D) "idealism that permeates" = a modern and not a c. 1900 perspective
    • without looking at the text, we can eliminate down to the correct answer, A)

General SAT Reading section topics & themes[edit | edit source]

  • SAT reading selections are usually aimed at the following topics:
    • global warming / climate/ environmental sustainability
    • social and political change, especially in historical pieces pertaining to social transitions from aristocratic or elitist to modern societies
    • rise of middle or professional classes
    • democratization & race and gender equality
    • industrialization, urbanization and impact of technological change
    • DNA, biodiversity, space technology, animal behavior
    • social media and other technological challenges to modern society
    • libraries, academics, and information technology