You know what it’s like. You walk into class and overhear your students in various conversations. This one was no different: two women were discussing what seemed to be a series of bad relationships and work decisions made by a mutual friend. The surprising thing was that I soon realized they were talking about Rosa Cassettari—the subject of the American Portrait in Chapter 17: Triumph of Industrial Capitalism, 1850–1890. I was flabbergasted. They were discussing something they had read in their American history textbook. That was when I realized that I had indeed chosen a unique textbook: James Oakes, Michael McGerr, Jan Ellen Lewis, Nick Cullather, and Jeanne Boydston, Of the People: A History of the United States, published by Oxford University Press. You are about to embark on a very serious study of American history, but both you and your students will find it very readable. As one of my students told me, “I really like this book!” Another young man told me he was keeping the textbook because it was the best book he had ever read. Can you remember when your students raved about your choice of a textbook? Can you remember when you felt the same?
Each chapter in the Instructor’s Manual has an overview and chapter outline. The chapter outline is also annotated. Suggested lecture and discussion topics for each topic are provided. These may be best used in conjunction with the review questions from the textbook, which are also included. In addition, we have incorporated the strong Oxford University Press publication list and identified titles that would work well as supplementary readings. If you use a reader in your course, you might want to look at those titles for ideas.
I organize my lectures around a handful of themes that I can discuss with my students during the semester. I like the idea of touching on several big ideas that transcend time, and my students seem to see the connections. I have included several of the themes that my colleagues and I have used over the years. The themes you develop will represent your interests and background, as well as the needs of your students. Here are some examples:
Globalism: This is the thesis for each chapter. The only problem you will have with this theme is narrowing down the material to a manageable amount.
Economy: The root of all decisions and actions. Seen from the context of the text, the economy pervades all other topics.
Defining equality: The story of the nation’s past is a continual refinement of what it means to be equal. Many, if not most, of our readings and class discussions ask our students to understand what “equal” meant at the time and how we have come to move well beyond how our forefathers defined and lived the term.
Slavery and abolitionism: At the heart of every topic in the first half of the nation’s history is the topic of slavery. Whether Americans are defending it, fighting it, or ignoring it, we have accommodated the institution in a myriad of ways. Whatever chapter or topic you are teaching, slavery and the abolition of slavery are part of the story.
Conditions, events, and forces that helped (or caused) these British, Spanish, and French colonists to begin to evolve into Americans. If you are looking at British colonial America, you may also want to begin to discuss social, political, environmental, and economic differences between the northern colonies and the southern colonies. Slavery, of course, common in all the European colonial economies, is also an important topic.
Imperialism/Colonialism: The development of American colonies in the Caribbean, Latin and South America, and the South Pacific and Asia—the beginning of the United States as an active part of a global market—is a theme that allows you to show your students the fascinating, complex, and never-ending results of our past decisions. As an encompassing theme, it also allows you to look at almost all other thematic topics.
Underrepresented Americans fighting for civil and political rights: This thematic category includes political minorities and ethnic and racial minority groups (African Americans, American Indians, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and others), as well as women and homosexuals. If the theme of the early twenty-first century is diversity, your students may benefit from understanding that our nation has always been made up of diverse groups and that Americans of all generations have struggled with the notion of diversity, even when they went to great lengths to ignore or eliminate it.
Colonial affairs: The relationships between Great Britain, Spain, and France and their colonists in the New World present many topics for your classroom lectures and discussions. The role of economics, especially bullionism and mercantilism and the resulting navigation acts, as well as colonial administration, is central to each of these nations. The identification and control of raw materials from the New World for manufacturing and sale in the Old World is central to the development of the new continent. So, too, is the relationship of the colonial powers to the native peoples of the Americas. You might want to develop the notion that there were conditions, events, and forces that helped (or caused) these British, Spanish, and French colonists to begin to evolve into Americans. If you are looking at British colonial America, you may also want to begin to discuss social, political, environmental, and economic differences between the northern colonies and the southern colonies. Slavery, of course, common in all the European colonial economies, is also an important topic.
Geographic growth: Colonial claims and international politics play a part in the geographic expansion of each nation’s holdings on the North American continent. After Great Britain and Spain consolidate their holdings and the United States comes into being, the strategies of exploration and control become even more interesting. As either European nation is eliminated (and Mexico born), the play continues. Helping your students trace the physical growth of the United States is vital. So, too, are the treaties, wars, and purchases that allow this growth. But central to that growth is the ever-present, but sometimes ignored, problem of the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Help your students see the relationship of geographic growth and the events foreshadowing the Civil War.
Politics and political parties: Political factions may not have been George Washington’s idea of a good thing, but brokering power between groups is a human universal. The way that Americans, whether colonists of the European powers or as competing groups in a small region of the nation, have brokered power is part of the dynamic story of our nation’s past. Your students may have a glazed look on their faces when the word “politics” is spoken, but understanding its importance in Americans’ daily lives is important for a complete comprehension of the subject. They may find that it is not nearly as boring as they had originally believed.
Foreign policy: Whether we are looking at the nation’s past from a colonial perspective or looking at the nation as a colonial power, foreign policy is always at the heart of many considerations. Narrowly conceived, foreign policy may be seen as international wars and conflicts; broadly conceived, it also includes international economic relations. Help your students see foreign policy as part of a larger whole and a significant player in the nation’s past.
Domestic policy: Similar to foreign policy, domestic policy is also generally at the heart of many of our considerations. Your considerations of domestic policy will also help your students understand the relationship between domestic policies, the nature of government, and the economy. Help your students see that domestic policy is in part a reflection of the society, as well as of the personality and philosophy of elected officials and of those who do not have political power.
Presidential leadership: These men have acquired the term leader because of the will of the American people, and any discussion of presidential leadership needs to keep that in mind. Help your students evaluate and understand these individuals by considering their actions from a number of characteristics: How did they influence Americans to do things that they may not have wanted to do to accomplish the nation’s goals? (The corollary to this is to look at ways the people forced government to do their will in spite of its not wanting to.) Did the individual want to be a leader, or did he rise to the occasion? What about personal charisma? Did the leader have a vision, and could he articulate that vision to the American people, or was the vision good but ineffective? Develop your definition of leadership and help your students come to some understanding of the individual’s complexities, as well as the challenges he faced. You may want to add to this category by including other political leaders, first ladies, and key men and women in industry, social reform movements, and society.
Development of government: Consider the evolution and expansion of Americans’ definitions and redefinitions of the social contract. What did Americans expect from their government, and how did that expectation change? What caused Americans to redefine their expectations? How did the American public react when their expectations were not met, or when the government tried to reduce or increase its role?
Immigration, urbanization, and working Americans: Considering working Americans allows your students to look at a wide variety of interrelated topics: the economy, the government, the competition between owners and workers, philosophies about wealth and poverty, and the development and evolution of labor unions. If you look at working Americans from this context, your students can then examine slavery (and various forms of enslavement) as an aspect of these topics.
I am not necessarily preoccupied with relating everything I discuss in class to something current, but while I was working on this project, I was reminded more than a few times about something my Hopi Indian teacher and mentor proclaimed: “There’s nothing new under the sun!” He was not telling me that things never change but that human beings were put on this, the Hopis’ fourth world, to learn how to act like human beings—meaning that when we act like human beings, we can use our experiences to guide us. For instance, at this point in our history, we have a historically important new president, which in itself is interesting. But what is also interesting is that we are experiencing events and challenges to our economic health that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his generation would find painfully familiar. FDR’s insights are clearly informing the policy decisions of President Barack Obama—our experiences are guiding our decisions. And what about a threat to our physical health as a nation? Did our good and bad experiences with the Spanish flu in FDR’s day inform our decisions and attitudes encountering the swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, of 2009? What did we learn then, and how are we using that knowledge this time around?
I trust you will enjoy Of the People: A History of the United States and that your students will benefit from the stories of those who have preceded us on this journey.Laura Graves, Ph.D.