Skip to main content Skip to main content


A Biography of America

American history is presented as a living narrative rather than a collection of facts and dates.

A video instructional series on American history for college and high school classrooms and adult learners; 26 half-hour video programs, coordinated books, and website.

A Biography of America presents history not simply as a series of irrefutable facts to be memorized, but as a living narrative. Prominent historians — Donald L. Miller, Pauline Maier, Louis P. Masur, Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Douglas Brinkley, and Virginia Scharff — present America’s story as something that is best understood from a variety of perspectives. Thought-provoking debates and lectures encourage critical analysis of the forces that have shaped America. First-person narratives, photos, film footage, and documents reveal the human side of American history — how historical figures affected events, and the impact of these events on citizens’ lives.

Series Overview

About A Biography of America

A Biography of America, a telecourse, video series, and website produced by WGBH Boston and funded by Annenberg Learner, presents history not as simply a series of irrefutable facts for students to memorize, but as a living narrative. In this 26-part series, prominent historians present America’s story as something that must be presented and debated from a variety of perspectives in order to be truly understood. Their thought-provoking debates and lectures — using first-person narratives, photos, film footage, and documents — will pique students’ interest and encourage them to think critically about the forces that have shaped America. Students will see the human side of American history — how historical figures affected events, and the impact of these events on citizens’ lives.

While A Biography of America covers material typically found in a history survey course — the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, the Progressive movement, and the consumer culture — it will bring teachers and their students closer to American history by placing them inside the mind of a slave, introducing them to the women working in turn-of-the-century skyscrapers, and driving them around Los Angeles in Ford’s new Model T.

An extensive array of visual images and footage from WGBH Boston, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress enhances the biographical and narrative approach of the series, allowing students to get an intimate look at the people and places they’re studying.

A Biography of America can be used:

  • as a self-contained college-level American history survey course for on-campus students or distant learners
  • as a supplement for college or high school American history survey courses, or any course with strong links to American history
  • as a resource for instructor in-service programs in American history
  • as a video reference for public, university, or school libraries

A Biography of America Scholar Team

Professor Donald L. Miller, Professor of History, Lafayette College
Professor Pauline Maier, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Professor Louis P. Masur, City College of New York
Professor Waldo E. Martin, Jr., University of California-Berkeley
Professor Douglas Brinkley, University of New Orleans
Professor Virginia Scharff, University of New Mexico
Raymond W. Smock, Senior Historical Consultant and former historian of the U.S. House of Representatives

WGBH Educational Foundation

WGBH/Boston is the flagship station of the Public Broadcasting Service. It is internationally recognized for excellence and innovation in television and radio programming. WGBH provides nearly one-third of the prime-time lineup of public television and PBS Online with programs and Web sites such as Nova, Frontline, The American Experience, Mystery, and Masterpiece Theater. To extend the educational impact of our programs, WGBH creates and distributes a variety of learning materials from teacher’s guides to video modules, websites, CD-ROMs for home and classroom use, and instructional programs.

For more information, visit WGBH’s Web site at

Annenberg Learner

Annenberg Learner, a partnership between the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, uses media and telecommunications to advance excellent teaching in American schools. Annenberg Learner funds educational series and teacher professional development workshops for the Annenberg Channel, which is distributed free by satellite to schools and to other educational and community organizations nationwide.

The notable series, workshops, and activities of Annenberg Learner include Destinos, French in Action, Journey North, The Mechanical Universe, The Private Universe Project, The Teaching Math Libraries, and The Western Tradition.

Houghton Mifflin Company

Houghton Mifflin Company is the leading publisher of college history textbooks in the nation. From our best-selling survey texts to our upper-level texts and readers, we provide the finest materials available for students and instructors. Our commitment to history education is apparent in our extensive support programs, which offer instructors an ever-expanding range of print, software, and multimedia materials to complement our texts.

Series Audience and Use

A Biography of America may be used as a video resource for classes, libraries, and media centers or as a telecourse for distant learners with purchase of a license. This series is for high school and college level students and educators.

Series Components

A Biography of America is a telecourse and video series that presents American history as a living narrative. This series website lets you delve further into the topics of the 26 video programs.

For each program, you’ll find an interactive feature related to the subject or the time period of the program. In addition, you’ll find a listing of key events of the period, a map relevant to the period, the transcript of the video program, and a “Webography” – a set of annotated web links. You will most likely want to watch the video program before using its related web segments, but you can use either independently.


  • Image as History: a way to “read” the visual content of an historical painting, drawing, photograph, or map
  • You Decide: an opportunity for you to experience the multiple arguments of an historical debate and to register your ultimate opinion
  • Interactive Map: a way to look at the geographical aspects of historical change
  • Interactive Timeline: a way to look thematically at chronologies

The Telecourse

The complete educational package for A Biography of America consists of 26 half-hour video programs that can be used as a one- or two-term course, a textbook, study guides, and faculty guides.

The Textbook

The sixth edition of A People and A Nation, written by Mary Beth Norton, David M. Katzman, David W. Blight, Howard P. Chudacoff, Thomas G. Paterson, and William M. Tuttle, Jr., is published by Houghton Mifflin Company. The text, which has been one of the leading books for American history since it was first published in 1982, is a spirited narrative that challenges students to think critically about the meaning of American history. The thoughtful inclusion of everyday people, cultural diversity, work, and popular culture brings history to life.

The sixth edition features new author David Blight, a highly respected scholar of African American history, who has reworked the chapters on the antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, incorporating the most recent scholarship on critical topics. This edition also includes new coverage of slavery in the colonial period, enhanced discussion of the emerging market economy in the antebellum period, new discussion of racial theory, expanded treatment of the West, a more chronological treatment of the post-WWII era, and an enhanced discussion of the U.S. in the world. A new feature, “Legacies of a People and a Nation,” ties an event or trend in every chapter to the present, showing history’s relevance to current politics, society, and culture in America.

For more information, visit Cengage’s website for A People and A Nation at

The Study Guides

A Biography of America: A Study Guide, Volume I and II, has been developed specifically for use with the Biography of America telecourse. Written by Rick Moniz, a history professor at Chabot College, and published by Houghton Mifflin Company, these study guides are designed to be used with the textbook, A People and a Nation, the sixth edition, also published by Houghton Mifflin Company. The guides offer students overviews of the programs, exercises, and resources that help integrate the video programs with the textbook. An introduction presents guidelines for viewing the programs and using the study guide. Each chapter corresponds to one of the 26 programs and includes learning objectives, activities to prepare students for watching the programs, links to readings in the textbook, an outline of the program, clarification of historical issues, a glossary, sample test questions, and map and geography exercises. The guide for Volume I covers programs 1-14 and the Volume II guide covers programs 14-26.

The Faculty Guides

A Biography of America: A Faculty Guide, Volume I and II, enables instructors to help students get the most from the course. Written by Rick Moniz, a history professor at Chabot College, and published by Houghton Mifflin Company, the guides contain numerous resources that will help both experienced and inexperienced instructors use the telecourse and textbook together to create an exciting and rewarding course. Each chapter in the faculty guides contains lecture suggestions and sections on using these suggestions for further research. The guide for Volume I covers programs 1-14, and Volume II guide covers programs 14-26.

Individual Unit Descriptions

1. New World Encounters
Professor Miller introduces A Biography of America and its team of historians. The program looks at the beginnings of American history from west to east, following the first Ice Age migrations through the corn civilizations of Middle America, and the explorations of Columbus, de Soto and the Spanish.

2. English Settlement
As the American character begins to take shape in the early 17th century, English settlements develop in New England and Virginia. Their personalities are dramatically different. Professor Miller explores the origins of values, cultures, and economies that have collided in the North and South throughout the American story.

3. Growth and Empire
Benjamin Franklin and Franklin’s Philadelphia take center stage in this program. As the merchant class grows in the North, the economies of southern colonies are built on the shoulders of the slave trade. Professor Miller brings the American story to 1763 with the Peace of Paris and English dominance in America.

4. The Coming of Independence
Professor Maier tells the story of how the English-loving colonist transforms into the freedom-loving American rebel. The luminaries of the early days of the Republic –Washington, Jefferson, Adams — are featured in this program as they craft the Declaration of, and wage the War for, Independence.

5. A New System of Government
After the War for Independence, the struggle for a new system of government begins. Professor Maier looks at the creation of the Constitution of the United States. The Republic survives a series of threats to its union, and program ends with the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the Fourth of July, 1826.

6. Westward Expansion
At the dawn of the 19th century, the size of the United States doubles with the Louisiana Purchase. The Appalachians are no longer the barrier to American migration west; the Mississippi River becomes the country’s central artery; and Jefferson’s vision of an Empire of Liberty begins to take shape. American historian Stephen Ambrose joins Professors Maier and Miller in examining the consequences of the Louisiana Purchase — for the North, the South, and the history of the country.

7. The Rise of Capitalism
Individual enterprise merges with technological innovation to launch the Commercial Revolution — the seedbed of American industry. The program features the ideas of Adam Smith, the efforts of entrepreneurs in New England and Chicago, the Lowell Mills Experiment, and the engineering feats involved in Chicago’s early transformation from marsh to metropolis.

8. The Reform Impulse
The Industrial Revolution has its dark side, and the tumultuous events of the period touch off intense and often thrilling reform movement. Professor Masur explores the ideas and characters behind the Second Great Awakening, the abolitionist movement, the women’s movement, and a powerful wave of religious fervor.

9. Slavery
While the North develops an industrial economy and culture, the South develops a slave culture and economy, and the great rift between the regions becomes unbreachable. Professor Masur looks at the human side of the history of the mid-1800s by sketching a portrait of the lives of slave and master.

10. The Coming of the Civil War
Simmering regional differences ignite an all-out crisis in the 1850s. Professor Martin teams with Professor Miller and historian Stephen Ambrose to chart the succession of incidents, from “Bloody Kansas” to the shots on Fort Sumter, that inflame the conflict between North and South to the point of civil war.

11. The Civil War
As the Civil War rages, all eyes turn to Vicksburg, where limited war becomes total war. Professor Miller looks at the ferocity of the fighting, at Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the bitter legacy of the battle — and the war.

12. Reconstruction
Professor Miller begins the program by evoking in word and picture the battlefield after the Battle of Gettysburg. With the assassination of President Lincoln, one sad chapter of American history comes to a close. In the fatigue and cynicism of the Civil War’s aftermath, Reconstruction becomes a promise unfulfilled.

13. America at Its Centennial
As America celebrates its centennial, five million people descend on Philadelphia to celebrate America’s technological achievements, but some of the early principles of the Republic remain unrealized. Professor Miller and his team of historians examine where America is in 1876 and discuss the question of race in America.

14. Industrial Supremacy
Steel and stockyards are featured in this program as the mighty engine of industrialism thunders forward at the end of the 19th century. Professor Miller continues the story of the American Industrial Revolution in New York and Chicago, looking at the lives of Andrew Carnegie, Gustavus Swift, and the countless workers on the packinghouse and factory floor.

15. The New City
Professor Miller explores the tension between the messy vitality of cities that grow on their own and those where orderly growth is planned. Chicago –with Hull House, the World’s Columbian Exposition, the new female workforce, the skyscraper, the department store, and unfettered capitalism — is the place to watch a new world in the making at the turn of the century.

16. The West
Professor Scharff continues the story of Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty. Railroads and ranchers, rabble-rousers and racists populate America’s distant frontiers, and Native Americans are displaced from their homelands. Feminists gain a foothold in their fight for the right to vote, while farmers organize and the Populist Party appears on the American political landscape.

17. Capital and Labor
The making of money pits laborers against the forces of capital as the 20th century opens. Professor Miller introduces the miner as the quintessential laborer of the period — working under grinding conditions, organizing into unions, and making a stand against the reigning money man of the day, J. Pierpont Morgan.

18. TR and Wilson
Professor Brinkley compares the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — the Warrior and the Minister — in the first decades of the 20th century. Professor Miller discusses American socialism, Eugene Debs, international communism, and the roots of the Cold War with Professor Brinkley.

19. A Vital Progressivism
Professor Martin offers a fresh perspective on Progressivism, arguing that its spirit can be best seen in the daily struggle of ordinary people. In a discussion with Professors Scharff and Miller, the struggles of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and blacks are placed in the context of the traditional white Progressive movement.

20. The Twenties
The Roaring Twenties take to the road in Henry Ford’s landscape-altering invention — the Model T. Ford’s moving assembly line, the emergence of a consumer culture, and the culmination of forces let loose by these entities in Los Angeles are all explored by Professor Miller.

21. FDR and the Depression
Professor Brinkley continues his story of 20th- century presidents with a profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Brinkley paints a picture of America during the Depression and chronicles some of Roosevelt’s programmatic and personal efforts to help the country through its worst economic crisis. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is at FDR’s side and, in many respects, ahead of him as the decade unfolds.

22. World War II
America is enveloped in total war, from mobilization on the home front to a scorching air war in Europe. Professor Miller’s view of World War II is a personal essay on the morality of total war, and its effects on those who fought, died, and survived it, including members of his own family.

23. The Fifties
World War II is fought to its bitter end in the Pacific and the world lives with the legacy of its final moment: the atomic bomb. Professor Miller continues the story as veterans return from the war and create new lives for themselves in the ’50s. The GI Bill, Levittown, civil rights, the Cold War, and rock ‘n’ roll are discussed.

24. The Sixties
Professor Scharff weaves the story of the Civil Rights movement with the stories of the Vietnam War and Watergate to create a portrait of a decade. Lyndon Johnson emerges as a pivotal character, along with Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other luminaries of the era.

25. Contemporary History
The entire team of historians joins Professor Miller in examining the last quarter of the 20th century. A montage of events opens the program and sets the stage for a discussion of the period — and of the difficulty of examining contemporary history with true historical perspective. Television critic John Leonard offers a footnote on the impact of television on the way we experience recent events.

26. The Redemptive Imagination
Storytelling is a relentless human urge and its power forges with memory to become the foundation of history. Novelists Charles Johnson (Middle Passage), Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha), and Esmeralda Santiago (America’s Dream) join Professor Miller in discussing the intersection of history and story. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. closes the series with a reflection on the power of the human imagination.

About the Participants

Donald L. Miller
Lafayette College

Donald L. Miller, lead historian for A Biography of America, is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. He was honored there with the Student Government Superior Teaching Award. He is the author of The New American RadicalismLewis Mumford: A LifeCity of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America; and, most recently (with Richard E. Sharpless), The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Professor Miller is a specialist in 20th century United States history and urban history.

Douglas Brinkley
Eisenhower Center for American Studies, University of New Orleans

Douglas Brinkley is a familiar and respected television commentator on a wide range of historical, documentary, and news programs. He serves as Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and is a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. A noted biographer and editor, he has published major volumes on Dean Acheson, Jimmy Carter, FDR, James Forrestal, Jean Monnet, and Theodore Roosevelt. His biography of Rosa Parks is forthcoming, and he is the author of the recent American Heritage History of America. Professor Brinkley’s area of interest is diplomatic and political history, with an emphasis on the twentieth century.

Pauline Maier
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Pauline Maier, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author, most recently, of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. In it, she traces the transformation of the Declaration from Jefferson’s draft through committee revision into “a national scripture.” An artful storyteller, her specialty is the period from the Revolution to the making of the Constitution. She is particularly interested in the interpretation of original documents as a route for understanding the minds of the times.

Waldo E. Martin, Jr.
University of California, Berkeley

A native of Greensboro, North Carolina, Waldo Martin was among the first African American undergraduates to enter Duke University. After receiving his Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley, he taught for nine years at the University of Virginia, and since 1991 has returned to U.C. Berkeley as Professor of History. For three years, he has been co-director of summer NEH seminars at Harvard’s Du Bois Institute on teaching the history of the civil rights movement. He is the author of The Mind of Frederick Douglass and Brown V. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents.

Louis P. Masur
City College of New York

Professor of History at the City College of New York, Louis P. Masur is the author of a renowned study of capital punishment, Rites of Execution. He is also editor of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”: Selections from American Writers During the Civil War. Professor Masur specializes in the Jacksonian period and 19th-century American history and has for many years taught a one-semester survey course entitled “American History from Mather to Rather.”

Virginia Scharff
University of New Mexico

Virginia Scharff specializes in the history of women, U.S. social history, and the American West and is an Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. Her book, Taking The Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, is a history of women and the automobile. She is now completing a study in which her areas of specialization intersect, to be called No Repose: Women’s Movements and the West. Widely published in scholarly journals, Professor Scharff also novels, under the name “Virginia Swift,” and is now finishing her second novel for HarperCollins.

Raymond W. Smock

Raymond W. Smock is Senior Historical Consultant to A Biography of America. He served as Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983-95, he is a graduate of Roosevelt University in Chicago and holds the Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland at College Park. He was co-editor of the 14-volume documentary series The Booker T. Washington Papers and has published in the fields of U.S. history, Congressional history, African American history, the history of photography, and presidential archives. His recent publications include Masters of the House: Congressional Leadership Over Two Centuries, edited with Roger Davidson and Susan Webb Hammond, and Landmark Documents on the U. S. Congress.

Production Credits


The website for A Biography of America was produced by WGBH Interactive for Annenberg Learner. Content for the site was developed by members of the same team of scholars that worked on the video series.

Senior Producer
Ted Sicker

Sarah Lowe
Michael Shaver

Darren A. Cole
David Gill
Daniel Bulli

Production Coordinator
Anna Clark

Business Manager
Mary Mlodzinska

With the assistance of:
Jamie Biggar
Anthony Cerasuolo
Hester Fuller
Tyler Howe
Jessica Korf
Lynette Lorenzo
Mark Wellcome

Academic Team
Professor Louis P. Masur, City College of New York
Professor Virginia Scharff, University of New Mexico
Raymond Smock, Senior Historical Consultant and former Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives

Copyright © 2000 WGBH Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.



A Biography of America video series is a production of WGBH Educational Foundation for Annenberg Media.

Executive Producer
Michele Korf

Senior Producer/Project Director
Christine Herbes-Sommers

Fred Barzyk

Theme Music
David Amram

Additional Music
Associated Production Music

Robert Birkett
Bill Charette
Lance Douglas
Michael Mulvey
Joseph Vitagliano

Chris Bresnahan
Gilles Morin
John Osborne

Robert Tompkins

Kelly Cronin
Nancy Grecoe
Laelia E. Mitchell

Still Photographer
Kathleen Dooher

Kristine Holmes

Phoebe Ramler
Kia Benjamin

Associate Producers
Diane Bernard
Julie Crawford
Catherine Benedict

Production Coordinator
Lisa Eure

Office Coordinator
Ivy Moylan

Senior Researcher
Michael Mushlitz

Additional Research
Patricia Dwyer
Julie Ecker
Elise Katz
Lee Shane
Alison Smith
Karen Thomas

Assistant Researchers
Sandra Lapa
James Coleman

Ben Cote
Abigail Lamstein

Senior Editor
Mark Geffen

Andrea Williams
Richard Katz
Harlan Reiniger

Assitant Editor
David Eells

Series Graphic Designer
Alison Kennedy

Motion Graphics Designer
Daryl Myers

Design Assistants
Michelle Moyal
Bruce Walker

Production Supervisor
Mary Ellen Gardiner

Production Coordinator
Judy Bourg

Unit Managers
Oral Benjamin
Joan Avallone
Kimberly Langley

Legal Services
Jay Fialkov
Maureen Jordan

Special Thanks
Longfellows Wayside Inn
Harvard University
Deck House Inc.

A Biography of America was produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation.

Series Directory

A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-202-7