Summary: BackStory is a weekly public podcast hosted by U.S. historians Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Nathan Connolly and Joanne Freeman. We're based in Charlottesville, Va. at Virginia Humanities. There’s the history you had to learn, and the history you want to learn - that’s where BackStory comes in. Each week BackStory takes a topic that people are talking about and explores it through the lens of American history. Through stories, interviews, and conversations with our listeners, BackStory makes history engaging and fun.
This past March, Sea World announced it will stop breeding orca whales in captivity, and is phasing out its killer whale shows. Meanwhile, the elephants of Ringling Bros. held their last performance earlier this month. Americans have always loved animals and pets, but the history of human-animal interaction hasn’t always been pretty. In this episode, the Guys will look at the contributions of pigs to the colonization of America, our complicated feelings about animal performers and explore what pets have meant to us throughout history.
To date, four states have legalized recreational marijuana, 23 states allow it for medical purposes and at least another five are expected to pass marijuana-related legislation this year. Meanwhile, heroin addiction and abuse of prescription painkillers are becoming a national epidemic. We have a checkered past where drug usage is concerned. Brian, Ed and Peter start this episode by looking at the 19th century, when opium and cocaine were legal. Along the way, we’ll explore the influence of the medical establishment, as well as the role of drugs in popular culture.
Queen Elizabeth celebrates her 90th birthday this June and royal watchers around the globe will join the festivities. Despite the Founding Fathers rejecting the British monarchy, Americans have always been fascinated by royalty. For this episode of BackStory, the History Guys will consider what happened when Napoleon’s little brother married an American teenager, whether Americans had more or less freedom after independence from Great Britain, and why Americans sometimes try to emulate royal families.
This May, thousands of Americans will bet on the Kentucky Derby, the most heavily-wagered horse race in the U.S. On this episode of BackStory, the Guys explore the history of gambling in America, from 18th century horse racing to cards, lotteries and the birth of Las Vegas. We’ll hear how lotteries help raise money for the Virginia colony, and when horse racing was America’s most popular spectator sport. We’ll also learn how gambling, once outlawed in much of the U.S., has also been a major source of revenue for cash-strapped communities.
This month, the U.S. Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. In this episode, we evaluate America’s relationship with money, exploring the transformations of currency over the centuries. The Guys and their guests discuss the profusion of currencies in the past, and consider how Americans decided which ones to trust.
This month, Jewish communities across the country celebrate Passover, a holiday that marks the end of the Israelites’ enslavement by the Egyptians. Only about 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish, but the influence of American Jews far outweighs their relatively small demographic size. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys explore the history of Judaism in America, from George Washington’s famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, to efforts to establish a Jewish city of refuge, near Buffalo, New York in the l820’s, and the importance of delis in Jewish American culture.
While Senate Republicans refuse to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, the History Guys review the history of gridlock in American politics. In this episode, Peter, Ed and Brian will look at other moments when our system of checks and balances devolved into open warfare between political factions. They’ll discuss how the Missouri Compromise failed to resolve the political battle over the expansion of slavery. They’ll also look at the war within the Democratic party over Prohibition in the l920’s, and how Southern Democrats used the filibuster to block civil rights bills in the l950’s and 60’s.
This spring, millions of American high school students are taking the newly redesigned SAT, which was first administered in 1926. It’s just one of many types of tests Americans have devised to measure and sort ourselves. In this episode, the Guys delve into the history of testing in America, from duels and religious tests in colonial New England to the development of the civil service exam in the wake of President James Garfield’s assassination in 1881 by a disgruntled job seeker. They’ll also look at the role of eugenics in the development of standardized tests for students, and corporate America’s fondness for the Myers-Briggs personality test.
With less than 2% of ESPN March Madness brackets still perfect, the madness may be more like sadness for many college basketball fans right now. In this episode, the American History Guys unpack the origins of college sports and the ways universities originally justified athletics on campus. From the first collegiate PHYS ED program at Amherst College to the little-known story about the integration of the University of Alabama’s football team, Peter, Ed and Brian discover why college sports even exist in the first place.
As the presidential candidates continue their contentious path to the White House, it’s easy to overlook what’s happening at the local level. For this episode of BackStory, the Guys take a break from the race for the White House and examine local power brokers; from big city political bosses and small town sheriffs to some of the social reformers who’ve shaped their communities from the ground up.
No sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba in nearly 90 years, but this month President Obama will do just that. This historic visit could signal a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations. In this episode, Peter, Ed and Brian consider dramatic moments in U.S.-Cuba relations that reflect Cuba’s outsized influence throughout American history.
Earlier this year, tensions between federal officials and anti-government militia occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon came to a somewhat violent end. Federal agents shot one of the protesters, while the rest surrendered to the FBI. It’s hardly the first time in our history that American citizens have staged armed protests. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys will consider different groups who have taken up arms - from Revolutionary War veterans protesting taxes, to the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and violent labor protests in the 20th century.
On this BackStory, we’ll take a look at what it means to be “middle-class” in America. Who belongs to the middle class? Who doesn’t? The Guys explore the rise and fall of the middle class and why so many Americans consider themselves members of this group.
President Barack Obama claims that the country’s low unemployment rate shows that we’ve rebounded from the Great Recession. But presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders say the “real” unemployment rate is much higher. During this episode of BackStory, the Guys will look at the invention of the official unemployment rate, discuss the struggle among Baltimore’s working classes in the early 19th century to find and keep work, and uncover the hidden history of unemployment in the U.S.
As the Zika virus spreads across the Americas, it’s worth looking at how the U.S. has responded to past epidemics. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys consider the impact of smallpox on New York City’s 19th century immigrant communities, and explore the rampant spread of diseases in the wake of the Civil War and the first World War.