1777: The colonial victory over British troops at the Battle of Saratoga persuades France to provide financial and military support that will prove vital to the success of the American Revolution.
1862: The Homestead Act makes more than 600 million acres of land available to be settled, sparking the largest migration of Americans in the nation's history.
1933: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal launches a series of unprecedented laws and programs that will relieve the stress of the Great Depression and reshape American society.
2001: The 9/11 terrorist attacks spark a complex and controversial war against terrorism both domestically and internationally.
These are just four of the many turning points in the relatively short history of the United States—landmark movements that irrevocably altered the direction of the nation and signaled the dramatic start of a new historical reality.
Whether they took the form of
- groundbreaking political and philosophical concepts,
- dramatic military victories and defeats,
- nationwide social and religious movements, or
- technological and scientific innovations,
these and other turning points are the veritable backbone of the American experience. They forever changed the character of America politically, socially, culturally, and economically. Sometimes the changes brought about by these events were obvious; sometimes they were more subtle. Sometimes the effects of these turning points were immediate; other times, their aftershocks reverberated for decades.
Regardless, these great historical turning points demand to be understood. Knowing what these events are, how they came about, and their dramatic effects is essential to grasping the full story of this great world power. It may even offer you vital clues as to where America is headed in the coming years and decades.
Turning Points in American History is your chance to relive the most powerful and groundbreaking moments in the fascinating story of the United States of America. These 48 lectures, delivered by masterful historian and dynamic Professor Edward T. O'Donnell of College of the Holy Cross, offer you a different perspective on the sweeping narrative of U. S. history. Spanning the arrival of the first English colonists to the chaos of the Civil War to the birth of the computer age and beyond, this course is a captivating and comprehensive tour of those particular moments in the story of America, after which the nation would never be the same again.
Encounter Recurring Themes in American History
Professor O'Donnell has selected these specific historical turning points based on his expansive knowledge of American history and his decades of experience as a professor and lecturer to a wide variety of audiences. What makes these specific events turning points, regardless of the form they take, is the fact that they signal times when American society made a break with its past and entered a new phase of development.
"Turning points mark decisive 'before and after' moments in history," he says at the start of his course. "Before Shays's Rebellion, for example, Americans lived under the Articles of Confederation. After Shays's Rebellion and the constitutional convention it inspired, Americans lived under a new federal government and enjoyed the protections articulated in the Bill of Rights. Put another way, America became a very different place after this event."
Throughout Turning Points in American History, you'll encounter a series of recurring themes that will put your understanding of U. S. history—and even history itself—into a larger, more informed context. Some of these themes are these:
- Surprises: Few people in any historical era are prepared for what's coming, whether it's a war, an epidemic, a revolution, or an invention. Who, 20 years ago, could have expected the astonishing impact of the personal computer on everyday life in America?
- Agency: History is often made by towering figures like George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. But it's also made by many nameless and faceless people—slaves, workers, farmers, suffragists—who take matters into their own hands and achieve historical change.
- Crisis: Historical crises are, more often than not, opportunities for great change. American history is filled with moments when a terrible crisis—such as the Civil War or the Great Depression—led to a sudden and radical change for the better.
Experience Both Familiar and Unfamiliar Turning Points
Taking a chronological approach, Professor O'Donnell gives you new ways to understand American history and to appreciate it as a grand narrative pinpointed with key moments that changed things forever. Each of his lectures focuses on a single turning point, explaining the conditions that led up to it, immersing you in the experience of the event itself, and exploring its immediate and long-term ramifications.
Here are just five of the great turning points you investigate in depth throughout this course:
- The Trial of John Peter Zenger (1735): A free press has played a central role in American history, and it wouldn't be possible without the arrest and prosecution of a little-known New York printer. While the trial did not establish any new legal precedent, it did popularize the ideas that freedom of the press is essential to liberty, that true statements cannot be libelous, and that a jury should decide both the facts and the law in libel trials.
- The Election of 1800: Many Americans in the months between the election in November 1800 and inauguration day in March 1801 feared that violence might engulf the new republic. Would the Federalists cede power to the winners of the election, the Republicans? In the end, a peaceful transfer of power between the two rival political parties took place, marking a precedent-setting moment in the history of the still-young republic.
- The Battle of Antietam (1862): This bloody Civil War battle stands out among others such as Bull Run and Gettysburg as a critical turning point for several reasons, including the fact that it allowed for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and it eliminated the possibility of England and France intervening on behalf of the Confederacy.
- The Picketing of the White House by Suffragists (1917): Thanks to the increasingly radical tactics of suffragists led by Alice Paul and the National Women's Party beginning in 1917, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson eventually cast their support behind the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that, when ratified in 1920, granted women voting rights and dramatically expanded American democracy.
- The Watergate Scandal (1974): The most significant crisis of the 1970s, this turning point signaled a heightened level of public distrust toward elected officials—but it also illustrated the power of the news media and proved that the Constitution's system of checks and balances truly worked to stop the abuse of executive power.
Then there are the other events—ones that you may have only cursory knowledge of, or may not even have considered to be such integral parts of America's story. Among the many that you'll investigate in these lectures are
- the founding of the Rhode Island colony (1636), which established the principle of religious pluralism—an idea that was eventually enshrined in the First Amendment;
- the Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), which cemented the role of the Supreme Court as the final arbiter in deciding a law's constitutionality;
- the establishment of the first national park (1872), which was the first time that any nation in the world set out to preserve acres of natural land for posterity; and
- the start of the Manhattan Project (1939), which led to the creation of atomic weaponry that ended World War II—but also started the cold war with the Soviet Union.
Along the way, Professor O'Donnell often dispels some intriguing myths and half-truths about American history and provides an honest, unabashed look at the subject matter. These lectures are packed with unfamiliar anecdotes, stories, and side notes that just may change your views on the grand narrative of American history. You'll learn, for example, that
- few Founding Fathers considered the Declaration of Independence a work of significant importance, and only in the 1800s was the document firmly enshrined in U. S. history;
- most Americans who participated in the westward expansion did not aspire to be merely subsistence farmers but were entrepreneurs who were tied to national markets and were eager for profits;
- African American soldiers were responsible for seizing San Juan Hill during America's war with Spain and not President Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders; and
- Albert Einstein did not actually work on the Manhattan Project, despite writing an influential letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warning of Hitler's pursuit of an atomic bomb.
Embark on a Riveting Historical Adventure
With his expansive knowledge, his intriguing perspectives on how we seek to understand the importance and the lessons of past events, and his undeniable passion for sharing his knowledge with others, Professor O'Donnell is a masterful guide through the more than 350 years of American history. Throughout his career, he has taught thousands of students, delivered lectures to a range of audiences, and served as the lead historian for the U.S. Department of Education's Teaching American History grant.
In Turning Points in American History, Professor O'Donnell has taken the story of the United States of America and crafted it into a riveting adventure—complete with triumphant stories whose lessons may inspire you, sobering moments that may challenge your perceptions of the greatest country in the Western world, and powerful insights that will undoubtedly expand and illuminate your knowledge about the true greatness of America. It is, in short, an unforgettable course that only an engaging and insightful historian and professor could create.