The first few professors in the field of history had only been appointed at major universities in the 1870s. Until then, wealthy men with the leisure time to pursue such endeavors did most of the writing of history and collection of historical manuscripts and archives.

Recognizing that a distinct field was emerging, a number of historians in the academy proposed an organization to establish high professional standards for historical training and research. In 1884, “professors, teachers, specialists, and others interested in the advancement of history in this country” were called to gather at the annual meeting of the American Social Science Association (ASSA) in Saratoga, New York. Despite the opposition of the ASSA’s president, John Eaton, the historians present voted to establish the American Historical Association as a separate organization. Herbert Baxter Adams, an associate professor in history at Johns Hopkins University, became the first secretary of the AHA and remained in that role for the next 16 years. Andrew Dickson White, a historian and president of Cornell University, was selected as the AHA’s first president.

In 1889, the association was incorporated in the District of Columbia by an act of Congress “for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts and for kindred purposes in the interest of American history and of history in America.” The act provided that the Association should have its offices in Washington, DC, and that it should make reports regarding historical matters to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who should then transmit to Congress such reports as he or she saw fit.

At the forefront of the Association’s activities was the support of historical research. As part of its annual reports, the Association began publishing new historical research, typically papers presented at the annual meetings. In 1898, the Association began to subsidize a new, financially strapped journal, the American Historical Review (AHR), which had been established by two AHA members. The Association assumed formal control of the AHR in 1915. The Association also published Writings on American History and three editions of the Guide to Historical Literature.

In support of the raw materials of history, the Association has been active in publishing documentary records and working with the government to ensure the proper preservation of historical records. The US National Archives was established largely due to the efforts of J. Franklin Jameson (managing editor of the AHR during the early 1900) and the AHA’s Committee on Governmental Historical Documentary Publications and the Committee on National Archives Buildings. This involvement in governmental support of history continues today, as the Association remains involved in advisory boards for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the State Department Historical Advisory Committee.The teaching of history has been an AHA concern since its inception. At the K–12 level, the AHA took a leadership role in the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten (1893), which established the importance of history in the emerging secondary school curriculum. The Association followed this with further suggestions for revision and improvement from the Committee of Seven (1898), the Committee of the Social Studies (1916), the AHA Commission (1929–34), and the establishment in 1969 of AHA’s History Education Project, funded by the US Office of Education (a precursor to the Department of Education).

The AHA has similarly been at the forefront of movements to develop high standards for graduate history education. In a 1932 report by the Committee on the Planning of Research, chaired by Arthur Schlesinger Sr., a distinguished panel of historians pointed to important transformations taking place in the historiography of disciplines and recommended major revisions to graduate training in history. Twenty years later, another AHA committee offered another bleak review of the training of professional historians, expressing particular concern about the time to degree and failure to keep up with the latest historiography. In 1974, the Association revised its Constitution to establish a Teaching Division, the only elected body in the discipline specifically charged with developing teaching programs.

Women and racial and ethnic minorities were officially accepted into the Association from its founding, but they enjoyed little or no representation at the Association’s meetings and in its governing structure. No African Americans were represented on the AHA Council until 1959, and it would be another 20 years before John Hope Franklin was elected the first African American president of the AHA. Similarly, only 15 women served on the AHA Council before 1971 (out of over 186 members). In the Association’s first 100 years only one woman, Nellie Nielson, was elected to the presidency. By 1973, an assistant executive secretary had been appointed for the specific purpose of addressing such inequities.

In the 21st century, the AHA continues to provide leadership for the discipline and promote the critical role of historical thinking in public life. The Association defends academic freedom, develops professional standards, supports innovative scholarship and teaching, and helps to sustain and enhance the work of historians.

Racist Histories and the AHA

In 2021, the AHA began an initiative "to document and reckon with the Association’s role in the dissemination and legitimation of racist historical scholarship that has had a deep and lasting influence on public culture." Through the Racist Histories and the AHA initiative, the Association is researching and documenting its role in generating, disseminating, legitimating, and promoting histories that have helped contribute to the evolution and institutionalization of racism in the United States.