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Nash was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he attended the public schools. He attended Princeton University, where he earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees (BA 1955, PhD 1964). He served in the U.S. Navy from 1955-58 on the John W. Weeks (DD-701), where he was antisubmarine officer and then gunnery officer.
After serving as Assistant to the Dean of the Graduate School (1959–62) and completing his doctoral degree, he joined the faculty of Princeton as an instructor in 1964 and an assistant professor in 1965-66. He moved to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he was an assistant professor, 1966–68; associate professor, 1969–72, and full professor from 1972 to the present. He was Dean of the Council for Educational Development from 1980 to 1984 and Dean of Undergraduate and Intercollege Curricular Development at UCLA from 1984 to 1991.
Nash co-directed the development of the National History Standards in U.S. and World History from 1992–94, when they were published by the National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS), where he served as Associate Director from 1988-94. He became the Director of NCHS in 1994 and oversaw the revision of the National History Standards published in 1996.
Nash served as president of the Organization of American Historians in 1994-95 and was on the OAH Executive Board from 1988 to 1991, and 1992 to 1998. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Antiquarian Society, the American Philosophical Society, and the Society of American Historians. He has served on the History Advisory Council of the College Board (2005–08), the Executive Board of the National Council for History Education (1990-2004), the Advisory Committee of the Skirball Institute on American Values (1988-2003), the National Advisory Council of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania since 2004. In 2008-09, he served as a member of the Second Century National Park Service Commission.
Nash is married to Cynthia J. Shelton. He has four children and nine grandchildren.
In addition to many books he has authored, co-authored, or co-edited, Nash has made chapter contributions to more than thirty books, has published forty-five articles and over eighty book reviews, op-ed essays, and comments. His article "Poverty and Poor Relief in Pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia" (William and Mary Quarterly, Jan. 1976) won the Daughters of Colonial Wars' prize for the journal's best article for 1976.