Engaging and Informative Presentations on American History

Edward T. O'Donnell is a professional public speaker with decades of experience delivering engaging, informative, and thought-provoking presentations before business professionals, educators, and audiences of lifelong learners.

See below for his presentation topics.


Presentation Topics

Three Key Turning Points in American History

US history has been shaped by many key turning points that dramatically changed the direction of the nation and set it on a new historical path. Some took the form of groundbreaking political and philosophical concepts; some were dramatic military victories and defeats. Still, others were nationwide social and religious movements or technological and scientific innovations. In this presentation, we’ll define what constitutes a key turning point and then examine closely three of them—the Declaration of Independence, the Spanish American War, and the New Deal to reveal how they came about and how they changed America’s social, economic, and political character. It’s an engaging and thought-provoking way to look at the broad sweep of US history and, importantly, to see how it can inform our understanding of our contemporary challenges.

Immigration and the Uneasy Making of Multicultural America

Why have so many millions come to the U.S. and how has each wave transformed American society? And why, despite our paeans to being "a nation of immigrants," have Americans historically despised each wave of newcomers? This presentation explores the key periods of immigration in U.S. history, the major immigrant groups that arrived, their struggles to earn a living and adjust to new surroundings, and the contributions they made to American life. It also addresses the persistent problem of nativism and the ideas, concerns, and myths that contribute to it. One goal of this presentation is to provide the historical context and information that is sorely needed in our national debate about immigration, both legal and undocumented.

What Was the Gilded Age? (And Are We Living in Another One?)

In recent years a spate of books and articles have been published with the phrase “New Gilded Age” or “Second Gilded Age” in their title. All examine current social, political, and economic problems in the United States (growing income inequality, Wall Street malfeasance, and vehement anti-immigrant sentiment—just to name a few) with an eye toward the first Gilded Age (1870-1900). That was a period when America experienced astonishing growth in prosperity, population, and industry, but also urban squalor, political corruption, worker exploitation, Robber Baron ruthlessness, and an alarming growth in the gap between rich and poor. This presentation will examine this first Gilded Age and the key issues it raised, as well as how out of its turmoil the U.S. entered a period (The Progressive Era) marked by wide-ranging reform movements. The last portion will offer a comparison between the first Gilded Age and our current situation.

American Slavery: Its Origins, Evolution, and Eventual Abolition

In the late 18th century the Founders established the United States as a republic of liberty. But that same nation was the largest slaveholding society in the world. And slavery would only grow in size and importance in the 19th century. As it did, however, a small but dedicated abolitionist movement emerged, intent upon ending slavery and transforming the US into a true republic of liberty. The ensuing struggle lasted decades, ending only when the Civil War brought about the abolition of slavery. But ending human bondage presented new challenges about race, equality, and justice that have never been fully resolved and which continue to impact American society up to the present.

The Civil War and the New Birth of Freedom

After decades of intensifying political conflict between the North and South, largely over the issue of slavery, the Civil War finally came in April 1861. It was not only America’s bloodiest conflict but also its most radically transformative. The war ended slavery, created a vastly stronger federal government, and left much of the South in ashes.  This presentation examines the key factors that led to Civil War, the critical battles and policy decisions, the role of African Americans in forcing the issue of emancipation, and the impact of new technology and military tactics in the first “modern war.” It also delves into the promise of Reconstruction and the counterrevolution that led to the imposition of Jim Crow.  

Now That We Are Free: The Triumph and Tragedy of Reconstruction

The end of the Civil War resolved the questions of slavery and secession, but it raised several new ones: What is the status of the newly freed slaves?  Would they become citizens entitled to all the rights enjoyed by white Americans?  If so, to what extent was the federal government obligated to protect those rights and freedoms?  The ensuing years of struggle began with an extraordinary experiment in multiracial democracy.  But southerners never accepted black equality and ultimately, as the northern commitment to Reconstruction waned in the late 1870s, regained power and restored white supremacy.

Conflict and Conquest in the American West

Beginning in the 1840s white settlers began pouring into the trans-Mississippi West. They established millions of farms and created thriving railroad, ranching, and mining industries. But these achievements came at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who resisted for a time, but eventually succumbed to the Army and life on reservations. This presentation examines the ideas, policies, and events that shaped the conquest of the West. It also looks at the ways in which an image of the West shaped the American imagination and self-image.



The Progressive Era

The period 1900-1920 was marked by a wide-ranging effort by many Americans to rein in the excesses and abuses that accompanied the industrial boom of the Gilded Age. This spirit of reform (Progressivism) – championed most famously by President Theodore Roosevelt - brought about significant changes in politics, business regulation, labor law, women’s rights, and social welfare policies. Yet there were limits to this reform, most notably in the area of African American civil rights. This presentation examines the ideas and motivations of these reform movements and assesses their success and enduring legacies.

America Becomes an Imperial Power

Until the 1890s, America prided itself for its isolation from world affairs and territorial ambitions that were limited to westward expansion.  But in the 1890s, as it emerged as the world’s leading economic power, America took an increasingly aggressive role in international affairs and by 1910 had become an imperial power, controlling territories around the globe, from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. This presentation examines the isolationist tradition in American political culture, the sources of emerging imperialist ambitions, key events like the Spanish-American War, and the anti-imperialist movement that argued imperialism was incompatible with republican government.

The Era of World War I: Idealism and Anxiety

The Era of World War I was one of the most contentious in the nation’s history, as Americans struggled with the challenges of corporate power, labor unrest, record immigration, and the rising demand for women’s suffrage. Americans were likewise divided over the U.S. entry into World War I and later, following the armistice, over membership in the League of Nations.  These and many other unsettling changes ultimately led to a resurgent conservatism (red scare, immigration restriction, and prohibition) that would last through the 1920s. This presentation examines these trends and the many questions they raised.

How Women Won the Vote

Seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls, NY convention called for women to gain the right to vote, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.  It represented a dramatic expansion of American democracy and led to significant changes in American politics and society.  This multimedia presentation examines the long struggle for women’s suffrage, including the bitter internal divisions over philosophy and strategy that threatened to derail the movement, the key initiatives like parades and picketing that helped build public support, the role of World War I in gaining President Wilson’s support, and the effort by some feminists to achieve an Equal Rights Amendment.

The Twenties: Roar and Reaction

The American economy “roared” in the 1920s as never before, until late 1929. The decade also witnessed profound social and cultural change as Americans embraced jazz, the Charleston, silent movies, and radio. Many women shocked their contemporaries by taking on the so-called “flapper” look with short hair and short dresses.  These trends eventually prompted a conservative backlash marked by Prohibition, immigration restriction, religious fundamentalism, and a revived Ku Klux Klan. We’ll examine the sources of the economic boom, as well as the reasons why it ended suddenly in October 1929 with the Wall Street crash and onset of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression and the New Deal

During the early years of the Great Depression Americans experienced economic hardship (25% unemployment) on a scale that was without precedent in U. S. history.  This multimedia presentation explores the causes and impact of the Great Depression.  It also examines the key aspects of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, including the key philosophical and political ideas behind it, the goals and outcomes of the short-term programs like the WPA and permanent reforms such as Social Security, the conservative challenge to the New Deal (i.e., Liberty League), and the formation of the New Deal coalition.  Finally, it offers an assessment of the successes and failures of the New Deal.

World War II and the Transformation of America

This presentation examines the extraordinary changes ushered in by the U.S. entry into World War II.  First, it brought millions of American women into the workforce where, unlike World War I, they stayed after the war.  Second, the war provided an opportunity for African Americans to demand a new federal commitment to civil rights, beginning what were the early rumblings of the formal civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Third, World War II ended the Great Depression and launched the greatest peacetime expansion of the economy in American history.  Finally, the war firmly established the U.S. as one of the world’s two superpowers, setting the stage for the Cold War.

Land of Liberty? Japanese Internment during WWII

Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. government sent 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry—most of them U.S. citizens—to the internment camps. This dark chapter in U.S. history caused many Japanese Americans to lose their homes, farms, and businesses, not to mention their dignity and self-esteem.  This presentation examines the role longstanding anti-Asian racism played in leading to internment. It also assesses the impact of internment on the lives of its victims and how they developed a variety of survival and coping strategies.  It also explores the deep divisions that emerged within the Japanese American community between those who advocated resistance and those who urged peaceful acquiescence. Finally, it looks into the long post-war struggle by Japanese Americans to rebuild their lives and to receive an apology and compensation from the U.S. government.

A Hard and Bitter Peace: The Cold War

Even before World War II ended, disputes had begun between the U.S. and Soviet Union over the shape of post-war Europe.  In the decades that followed virtually every foreign policy decision of the U. S., from the Marshal Plan to the Space Program were made with the Cold War in mind. This multimedia presentation explores the origins of the Cold War, the emergence of the so-called “military industrial complex,” the U.S. intervention in wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the threat of nuclear war.  It will also examine the influence of the Cold War domestic affairs, ranging from the rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to the conservatism of the American labor movement.

Nobody’s Free, Until Everybody’s Free: The Civil Rights Movement

African Americans fought for their civil rights long before the 1950s, but it was in that decade that a full-blown Civil Rights Movement began to gain traction. Led by inspirational figures like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. the movement staged nonviolent marches, filed law suits, and pressured political leaders to restore to African Americans their constitutional rights won during Reconstruction.  By 1965 the movement achieved passage of the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts. This presentation examines the origins of the movement, the philosophy of nonviolence, and the key strategic decisions of the movement.  It also explores the role played by more militant leaders such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael pushed the movement to confront more contentious issues such as entrenched poverty, police brutality, affirmative action, and the war in Vietnam.

Vietnam: The War That Divided America

No event in recent American history, with the possible exception of the Civil Rights Movement, was more controversial than the Vietnam War. After initially supporting the war, the American public turned against it, eventually compelling withdrawal (but not before 58,000 soldiers were killed).  It was a humiliating defeat for the world’s leading superpower, and its military, diplomatic, and political impact would be felt for at least another generation.  This multimedia presentation will explore the Cold War context that led to U.S. involvement, the key military features of the war, the role of the U.S. media, the anti-war movement, and the long-term military, political, and diplomatic legacies of the war.

Uncle Sam and All That: The History of American Symbols

Throughout the history of the United States, Americans have developed symbols to express their most cherished values, hopes, and institutions.  These include familiar ones like the American flag, Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, Uncle Sam, the White House, and the bald eagle. They also include symbols that challenge the establishment to promote social change. Consider the peace sign or the clenched fist of the Black Power movement.  And what about all those now forgotten symbols that once carried so much significance—like the pineapple (hospitality), bee hive (hard work), and the ballot box (democracy)?  This presentation explores the role of symbols in American history and these key questions: Where do these symbols come from?  How have they functioned in society? How and why does their meaning change over time?

The Statue of Liberty: The Story of An American Icon

The Statue of Liberty is an icon, a national treasure, and one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Each year millions who cherish its ideals make the journey to experience its history and grandeur in person. Most visitors, in part because Ellis Island is close by, see the Statue as a symbol of freedom, inspiration, and hope for successive waves of immigrants to the U.S. They would be shocked to learn that the Statue originally had nothing to do with immigration. It was, rather, an extraordinary gift from the people of France to the people of the United States to commemorate the centennials of the American (1776) and French (1789) Revolutions, as well as celebrate the close relationship between the two countries. This presentation examines this origin story and how the Statue was gradually transformed into an immigration icon and a very powerful and pliable political symbol.

The History of Christmas in America

Was Christmas really banned in Massachusetts until the 1850s? How did the eight reindeer get their names? Why do we bring pine trees into our houses at Christmas? How did Santa go from a 4th century Turkish bishop, to a tiny elf, to a life-size grandfatherly figure dressed in red? What role did Coca-Cola play in this? Where does the Yule log fit into Christmas? Why are so many Christmas songs like “Rudolph” written by Jewish songwriters? What’s with the recent trend of upside-down Christmas trees? And is there really a “War on Christmas”? This talk takes on these and many more Christmas-related questions.


The Erie Canal: Forgotten Engineering and Economic Wonder of the 19th Century

Before the building of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, the greatest public works project in US history was the Erie Canal. Built between 1817-1825, it stretched an astonishing 373 miles across upstate New York to connect the Hudson River with Lake Erie. Now manufactured goods from eastern states and Europe could flow into the American heartland in exchange for commodities like grain, furs, and lumber. The canal triggered extraordinary national economic growth and transformed New York into the “Empire City.” In this talk we’ll examine the visionaries behind the canal, the incredible feats of engineering it required, the workers who did the grunt work, the many copycat canal projects (most destined to fail) that it inspired, and the ultimate fate of the canal over the course of the 19th century.

The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall, America’s Most Notorious Political Machine

Urban political organizations known as “political machines” emerged in the mid-1800s in response to mass immigration, urban expansion, rapid industrialization, and the broad expansion of the vote. The most powerful and infamous machine was Tammany Hall which came to dominate New York City and wield immense power in national politics into the 1930s. In this talk we’ll learn how Tammany leaders like William “Boss” Tweed used fraud and corruption, as well as constituent service and compassion to win elections, enrich themselves, and build American cities. We’ll also delve into the ways that political machines provided vital assistance to the poor and vulnerable in the age before social services. And we’ll consider what factors led to the demise of Tammany and machine politics starting in the 1930s.

Why History Matters: How an Understanding of History Is Essential to Citizenship, Morality, Leadership, Business, and Even Personal Happiness

Everyone has heard the maxim, “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” But do we really know why it’s important to study history? Do we know what separates history from other academic subjects like math, science, or psychology? Do we know why history matters? This session will broaden participants’ understanding of the significance of history beyond the idea of “learning lessons.” Using vivid examples from topics such as the history of slavery, the Civil War, immigration, and women’s rights we’ll explore the five essential elements of history and how they hold the potential to strengthen our democracy, promote human rights, boost a healthy patriotism, and inform public policy decisions on issues such as taxes, healthcare, war, and privacy.