As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
Why does history matter?

"How Dumb are We?" photograph from Newsweek article, March 11, 2011Welcome to History 110! This semester we will embark upon a journey - a journey that tells an important story about how and why the United States developed into the nation we are today. And along the way, our story will try to illustrate that history matters - that it is important for 21st Century Americans to understand our historical origins. In so doing, we will constantly challenge our 21st Century minds to give way to our 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Century minds.

But before we begin our journey, it is important for us to get an understanding of what we already know about our history and our government.

  • Take out a piece of paper and spend no more than 3 minutes on the exam at
  • Now, let's see how well we did.
  • If you did well on this quiz, pat yourself on the back. If you did not do well, you are, unfortunately, not alone. The 2013 Newsweek article "How Ignorant are Americans?", concluded that Americans are "incurious know-nothings" about our history and our government, and that "the country's future is imperiled by our ignorance."
  • Why do you think Americans are so ignorant about our history and our government?
  • What do you like about studying American history?
  • What do you dislike about studying American history?

Goals for today's discussion:

  1. To discuss what you can expect from this class and what your professor will expect from you.
  2. To outline the chronological story that will unfold throughout the semester.
  3. To explain the essential role controversy plays in American history.
  4. To demonstrate that history has great relevance to our 21st Century lives - and to show such relevance by demonstrating why Lincoln still matters .

Goal #1: To discuss what you can expect from this class and what your professor will expect from you

So, what do you expect from this course?

How well do your expectations line up with what I think you can expect from this class? As the semester progresses, each of you can expect that I will try to:

  1. Help you begin thinking like historical scholars by empowering you to help build an academic community in which all of us are encouraged to speak, to be heard, and to begin thinking critically about history.
  2. Encourage you to understand that history is complex - it involves controversy, conficlit, and compromise and thus requires us to look at many sides of the issues and make our own interpretations of the facts.
  3. Tell you a chronological story that unfolds like a book in which each chapter builds on the last and ends with interesting and important conclusions.
  4. Illustrate how historical facts and events are relevant to, and carefully interwoven into, the fabric of our everyday lives by making relevant connections between historical events and contemporary circumstances.
  5. Help you understand the rich multicultural history of America through what Dr. Ronald Takaki has called "a different mirror" - a mirror that merits a deep understanding of all Americans and our many different types of celebrations.
  6. Teach thematically by providing a context for a real understanding of American history.
  7. Encourage you to think honestly about our historical past and optimistically about our future by thinking about the evolutionary road upon which we have embarked to make the U.S. a truly egalitarian nation.

Cartoon, "I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers who will do exactly as I say."Now, let's take a look at my expectations of you. Throughout the semester, I expect you will:

  1. Make an intellectual commitment to the academic community that we will create this semester. Such a commitment requires:
  2. Empower yourselves individually and collectively during class discussions by asking questions about anything you don’t understand and providing intellectual input.
  3. Attend class regularly and arrive on time with your cell phones turned off. 
  4. Respect everyone’s viewpoint, style of learning, and attitudes about the class.
  5. Acknowledge that this is a college level course and as such, requires hard work - time and commitment must be invested in order to be successful.
  6. Come to my office hours and/or meet with our Teaching Assistants if you have any questions or issues.  This gives both me and your TAs an opportunity to get to know you - which, in turn, strengthens our academic community.

Goal #2: To outline the chronological story that will unfold throughout the semester

This semester’s story...

Goal #3: To explain the essential role controversy plays in American history

This goal is carefully tied to our overall course theme - "American history is full of controversy, conflict, and compromise," - as well as to at least four other course themes - Patriotism is a relative construct, Progress is not always progressive, Freedom is never free, and Dissent and protest are essential ingredients of American history.

How historical controversy plays out in the contemporary world:

  1. The public versus the educational community

Cartoon "War At Home"

2. One interpretation of an event versus a different interpretation of an event.

Goal #4: To demonstrate that history has great relevance to our 21st Century lives - and to show such relevance by demonstrating why Lincoln still matters

Picture of Daniel Day Lewis and Lincoln

1. Photograph of Eric FonerLincoln shows us that changing his mind about an important issue while in office is a positive example of intellectual growth. In his Pultizer Prize winning book, The Fiery Trial (2011), Eric Foner shows that when Lincoln came to office, he shared many of the deep racial prejudices held by the majority of Americans. But he argues that by the beginning of his second term, he had dramatically changed his mind and not only wanted to free all the slaves in the reunited American states, but also wanted them to have equal rights.

2. Lincoln shows us how a president and politicians can work with those who have and do oppose you. In her book, Team of Rivals upon which the movie Lincoln is based, Doris Kearns Goodwin shows that Lincoln took the unparalleled step of appointing four of his political rivals to his cabinet: William H. Seward - second below, who was expected to win the Repubican nomination for president - as secretary of state; Salmon P. Chase -fourth below, a would-be hopeful for the Republican nomination - as secretary of the Treasury, Edward Bates - first below, another presidential hopeful - as attorney general; and Edwin M. Stanton - third below, a Democrat and avowed enemy of Lincoln - as secretary of war.

Photograph of 4 members of Lincoln's cabinet considered part of his "Team of Rivals"

Could this "team of rivals" - each of them initially convinced of his superiority to the inexperienced president - work together in harmony? Goodwin tells us the answer is yes, because Lincoln had an incredible ability to rise above personal slights and a talent for getting along with men of clashing ideologies and personalities who could not get along with each other.

3. Lincoln shows us how a president could set a precedent for the presidential usurpation of congressional powers during times of war. In his book, Tried by War, James McPherson explains that despite the constitutional requirement that only Congress can declare war, shortly after troops of the newly declared Confederate States of America (CSA) bombed Union soldiers at Fort Sumter on April 15, 1861, President Lincoln declared war and immediately mobilized the political, economic, diplomatic, psychological, and military resources of the nation. He claimed he had the right to do so as commander in chief.

But again, as McPherson explains, the Constitution does not define the duties of commander in chief. Thus, Lincoln established a precedent by arguing that as commander in chief, he could bi-pass Congress and could use executive orders to raise an army. How did he justify this? After declaring war when Congress was out of session, he explained the following to them on July 4, 1861: "It was with Photograph of James McPhersonthe deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war power in defense of the Government forced upon him. He could but perform this duty or surrender the existence of the Government ... He felt that he had no moral right to shrink, nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow."

He further declared that his oath of office required him to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution and this duty overrode any specific constitutional constraints on executive action. In short, President Lincoln - as quoted by McPherson - maintained that "as commander-in-chief of the army and navy, in time of war - I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy - I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds that cannot be done constitutionally by Congress."

Cartoon of Guantanamo and Habeas Corpus4. Lincoln shows us how the precedent was set for the presidential usurpation of civil liberties during times of war. Again, McPherson in Tried by War writes that shortly after the Civil War began, President Lincoln signed the Executive Order,"Writ of Habeas Corpus Relating to the Events in Baltimore" which suspended the writ of habeas corpus - the constitutional guarantee giving prisoners the right to be brought to court to determine if they were being legally held as well as the right to challenge their detention through independent judicial review.

The U.S. Constitution in Article I, Section 9 says, "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." Only Congress was authorized to approve such a suspension. But Lincoln suspended habeas corpus without waiting for Congress to authorize it. He then ordered military authorities to arrest and detain without trial those in the northern and border states who aided the rebel cause, were believed to be Confederate spies, and who resisted the draft - and he detained them until the war's conclusion.

He further ordered that all arrested under this law could be tried and punished by military courts as regular courts were deemed to be inadequate during a rebellion and all those who opposed the Union endangered "the public safety." Over 4,000 military trials were held throughout the war. In 1863, Congress passed the Habeas Corpus Act endorsing Lincoln's decision to deny habeas corpus in 1861 by authorizing suspensions throughout the war and enabling the government to detain persons suspected of disloyalty to the Union.

5. The era of Lincoln's presidency shows us how a vocal minority - the Radical Republicans - can not only make Congress barely functional, but can also force radical political change. Again, in Team of Rivals and in Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates that the Radical Republicans were a small political minority but were able to force passage of three very controversial constitutional amendments - the 13th, 14th, and 15th Freedom Amendments.

Check out an extreme example of contemporary obstructionist politics at

Cartoon of student telling father he flunked history