Distinguished Lecturers
Robert Brent Toplin

Robert Brent Toplin

Robert Brent Toplin was professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and at Denison University and taught at the University of Virginia after retirement from full-time teaching. Toplin has published eleven books, more than a hundred and fifty articles, and has appeared frequently as a commentator on history in nationally broadcast television and radio programs. He served as principal creator of historical dramas broadcast nationally on PBS, the Disney Channel, and Starz. Toplin received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, the Ford Foundation, and other institutions. For two decades, he served as editor of the Journal of American History’s movie reviews. In addition to speaking about history throughout the United States, Toplin has lectured in Europe, Latin America, Israel, South Africa, and Japan.

OAH Lectures by Robert Brent Toplin

The disillusionment, rebellion, and upheaval we associate with the Sixties didn’t truly begin until 1965. What caused the change? One of the most important factors relates to escalation of the Vietnam War. By the end of 1965, 185,000 U.S. soldiers were in Vietnam and antiwar protests began in the USA on college campuses and city streets. This lecture draws attention to clashing perspectives on Vietnam that broke up a friendship between President Lyndon Johnson and the prominent journalist, Walter Lippmann. The presentation also examines how the changes that were occurring in American society in 1965 began to affect musical, television, and movie entertainment.

In 1932-1933, two notable figures in American history faced the Great Depression. President Herbert Hoover had an impressive biography. He emerged from humble beginnings, acquired great wealth, saved millions of people from hunger during and after World War I, and was enormously popular when elected president. His reputation took a beating when the economy crashed. In contrast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches and initiatives helped restore confidence, even though the road to recovery would be long and difficult. This lecture describes the tense and hostile relationship that developed between these two leaders during the crisis. It also examines their strikingly different views about the government’s role in economic affairs.

The record of Brazilian slaveholders’ nervous reactions to abolitionism suggests parallels with U.S. history. Slaveholders in the American South voiced related fears about the abolitionist challenge, and they predicted a scenario of trouble that, in many ways, resembles the breakdown of slavery in Brazil during the 1880s. An understanding of the Brazilian experience suggests insights for addressing questions that have long interested students of U.S. history: Why did John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry energize the secessionist movement? Why did many slaveholders view Lincoln’s election with such fear that they believed disunion was imperative?

We typically think of feature films as popular entertainment, not influential works of art that shape public opinion. Yet history-oriented movies often make an impact. This presentation will examine several popular movies that portrayed people and events from history. Some of these films affected the American people’s judgments about their leaders. Others influenced the judgments of American presidents.
Can history-based movies educate the public? Pundits often complain that filmmakers invent and distort when portraying history. Some films do, indeed, fictionalize excessively. This lecture takes a different tact, however. It highlights differences between writing and filmmaking. Moviemakers necessarily exercise artistic license. Nevertheless, when they approach historical subjects intelligently, they can excite viewers’ interest in learning about the past.

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