Since 1957, when the SAH inaugurated the annual Francis Parkman Prize for the best-written work of 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 Society of American Historians Prize for Historical Fiction (formerly the James Fenimore Cooper Prize) was inaugurated in 1993. The annual Tony Horwitz Prize, honoring distinguished work in American history of wide appeal and enduring public significance, was awarded for the first time in 2020.

The society periodically 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 given jointly with The Roosevelt Institute from 2008 to 2017.

Membership is by invitation only and now stands at about 400. The society is supported by annual contributions from both fellows and publishers and from SAH-authored publications.