Since 1957, when the SAH inaugurated the annual Francis Parkman Prize for the best-written American history, the society's chief activity has been to identify and celebrate distinguished historical writing. The annual Allan Nevins Prize for the publication of a dissertation was established in 1961, and the biennial James Fenimore Cooper Prize for American historical fiction was inaugurated in 1993. The society awards several prizes for scholarly and professional distinction: the Francis Parkman Prize for Special Achievement, established in 1962, and from 1984-2006, the biennial Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of History. The annual Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award for Distinguished Writing in American History of Enduring Public Significance was established in 2008 and is given jointly with The Roosevelt Institute.
Membership is by invitation only. The society is supported by annual contributions from both fellows and publishers and from SAH-authored publications.