From its inception, the Society of American Historians has sought to bring good historical writing to the largest possible audience. An important step in that direction was taken in 1954 when the society—under a leadership including Allan Nevins and Bruce Catton—in cooperation with the American Association for State and Local History, initiated the magazine American Heritage. To encourage literary distinction in the writing of history, the Nevins dissertation publication prize recognizes new scholarship on important themes in American history; the Parkman nonfiction prize rewards literary excellence; the Cooper fiction prize emphasizes literary quality and historical authenticity.

The society's past presidents are:

David W. Blight, 2013-2014
Patricia Nelson Limerick, 2012-2013
Walter Isaacson, 2011-2012
Pauline Maier, 2010-2011
David M. Kennedy, 2009-2010
Mary Beth Norton, 2008-2009
Thomas Fleming, 2007-2008
Eric Foner, 2006–2007
Frances FitzGerald, 2005–2006
Robert Dallek, 2004–2005
Geoffrey C. Ward, 2003–2004
David Levering Lewis, 2002–2003
Jean Strouse, 2001–2002
James M. McPherson, 2000–2001
Kenneth T. Jackson, 1998–2000
David McCullough, 1991–1998
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., 1989–1991
John Brooks, 1987–1989
Richard B. Morris, 1984–1987
Walter Lord, 1981–1984
William E. Leuchtenburg, 1978–1981
James Thomas Flexner, 1975–1978
Barbara Tuchman, 1971–1975
John A. Garraty, 1969–1971
Eric F. Goldman, 1961–1969
Allan Nevins, 1946–1961
James P. Baxter III, 1944–1946
Douglas Southall Freeman, 1939–1944