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.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created tens of thousands of new combat veterans. But what happens to these soldiers once they return home? In honor of Veterans Day, BackStory looks at the experiences of veterans across American history. What kinds of challenges did veterans face in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries? How did Americans understand the psychological effects of war before PTSD was a diagnosis? What was expected of soldiers’ wives and mothers from one war to the next? Are veterans only as popular as the wars they’ve fought in? On this episode of BackStory, the Guys will tackle these and other questions.
Halloween—despite its solemn Celtic roots—has become a day that American children get to play around with goblins and ghosts. But for some, the dearly departed have always been a very real part of daily life. This episode of BackStory explores how witches, spirits, and ghosts have haunted American history. Why were colonists so fearful of New England “witches”? How did progressive social reformers find a home in the Spiritualist movement of the 19th century? Why did technological breakthroughs like the telegraph and telephone conjure up talk of spirits? Can social upheaval help explain our history with the supernatural? Brian, Ed, and Peter look for answers…
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have packed stadiums as they make their case for the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. Many pundits have labeled them 21st century “populists,” but invoking the “voice of the people” is a tradition as old as the country itself. In this episode, the Guys trace populism’s influence on American politics—from mob justice in Revolutionary Boston to the original presidential outsider, Andrew Jackson. BackStory will explore how farmers built a mass movement around monetary reform in the late 19th century and how the Trumps of their day capitalized on a tradition of riling up the masses. How have populist movements inspired, and sometimes alarmed, the electorate? And how does populism affect our politics today?
As the fall harvest comes in, BackStory takes a look at how farmers came to wield so much influence in American politics and life. In the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson viewed farmers as ideal citizens,their agricultural lifestyle providing the foundation for a virtuous republic. Just two percent of Americans live on farms today, but farmers still occupy a special place in the national identity. In this episode, BackStory considers why the ideal of the self-sufficient, independent American farmer is still so powerful (even as the reality has largely disappeared) and who has invoked that ideal over time. From railroad companies to anti-imperialists, the image of the “yeoman farmer” has served many different ends and anchored one of the most successful government lobbies in history.
Americans have traded with China since the earliest days of the Republic. During the colonial era and for early Americans, China was a source of luxury goods like tea, porcelain, and silk. For some of their descendants, it was the destination for an illicit and lucrative trade in opium. Later, Chinese immigrants helped to build the American West. But the relationship between the two countries has often been fraught, with each side fearing that the other is seeking the upper hand. In this episode, Brian, Ed and Peter explore the long and often turbulent history between the two countries, now the top economies in the world. How does our past history with China color our present relationship?
Tens of thousands of refugees have been arriving in Western Europe, fleeing civil war and unrest in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the migrants making these perilous border crossings are children. This is hardly the first time minors have made such treacherous journeys. This week, BackStory revisits our episode on the many paths of child migrants in our own country. Some were thought of as innocents to be saved, whether from the Nazi bombing of London or from overcrowded urban orphanages. Others were hailed as pint-sized heroes of the Cold War, or scorned as child savages in need of civilizing — a justification once used to tear Indian children away from their families.
September 27 marks the beginning of Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating literature and the freedom to read, by highlighting and exploring efforts around the country to remove or restrict access to certain books. Indeed, Americans have sought to censor all kinds of things: music, radio, TV, and film have also run up against assumed limits on what is acceptable to say or portray. In this episode, Peter, Ed, and Brian offer an uncut account of censorship in American politics, media, and culture—from rules designed to prevent the discussion of controversial subjects ranging from slavery to sex via the mail, to Hollywood's production code and censorship today. Recalling materials and individuals that have been suppressed or once incurred a censor’s wrath, we explore how the line between free speech and censorship has changed over time.
On September 22, Pope Francis will begin his first American tour, making stops in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York along the way. In this episode, the BackStory Guys explore American Catholicism—recounting the struggles, triumphs, and unique impact of Catholics on the history of the United States. From Spanish missionaries on the California coast and early converts among the Mohawk, to JFK and modern nuns living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, BackStory considers how what it means to be Catholic in America has changed over time.
As Americans wrestle with the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and as we observe the 14th anniversary of terror attacks on New York and Washington, BackStory returns to our episode on domestic terrorism. What are the origins of domestic terrorism in the United States? And what kinds of people and movements have been labeled as “terrorist?” Brian, Ed, Peter and their guests explore the relationship between terror and the state and ask when, if ever, terrorism is justified.
Eating meat is a time-honored tradition in America. Whether it’s Thanksgiving Day turkey, a TV dinner of Salisbury steak, or a plate of Hawaiian Spam musubi, meat has been a constant presence on the national platter. But over the years, changing technologies, tastes, and policies have altered not only which meats Americans consume but also how they consume them. As millions of Americans fire up their grills this Labor Day, the Guys will look back on America’s love affair with all things meat. How did we get from smokehouses to supermarkets? Why do we love hot dogs so much? And in the era of modern appliances, why do we still insist on grilling steak, wings and burgers on an open flame?
Summer vacation is drawing to a close, and for many Americans that means heading to the mall for some back-to-school shopping. What better time to revisit our show on the history of American fashion? In this episode, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore what self-presentation says about our society and culture, and how fashion has reflected moments and movements in American history. When do fashion statements become political statements? Does fashion evolve, or does it simply revolve? And does the United States have a unique style? Just some of the questions BackStory poses on its history of fashion in America…
This summer, hundreds of thousands of acres are burning across the West. It’s a reminder that a force of nature, mastered but not tamed over the millennia, doesn’t always bend to the will of human beings. Until the early 20th century, fire was essential for heat, cooking and light. But as electrification spread, few Americans still relied on fire at work or in their homes. Brian, Ed and Peter will blaze a trail across time in search of stories about how Americans have harnessed the power of fire, managed its dangers, and made meaning in its flames.
In recognition of New Horizons’ historic journey to Pluto, BackStory is returning to our episode on space. From Cotton Mather’s list of every comet since the beginning of time (415, to be exact), to the apparently inexhaustible appeal of Star Wars, Americans’ have had an ongoing fascination with the skies above us. How have people made sense of meteors, eclipses, and the stars? What has made us want to travel among them, to go to the moon, to Mars, or beyond? And how do things change for those of us here on earth when we do? Peter, Ed, and Brian will be looking up, and looking back. We've got the story of a New England day in 1780 when the sun did not rise, and a midwestern evening a century later when meat fell from the skies. That’s right, meat. Plus, Peter, Ed, and Brian learn about the powerful impact of first photograph of the earth taken from space, and talk with the astronaut who took it. And they hear from a few Americans who signed up for a trip to the moon in the 1960s…and are still waiting to get there.
August 6th marked Jon Stewart’s last episode behind the anchor desk on The Daily Show. His 16 year run on the show helped usher in a whole new generation of satirists, including former correspondents Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and John Oliver. In honor of Stewart’s satirical legacy, Peter, Ed, and Brian are recalling how satire has played throughout American history. From songs mocking the redcoats during the American Revolution, to the political cartoons that helped to win a presidential election, to the biting social commentary of the Harlem Renaissance, the Guys explore how satire has both critiqued and shaped American politics and society for generations.
Like millions of Americans this summer, BackStory is quitting the city and heading into the wild. In this episode, Brian, Ed, and Peter return to Americans’ fascination with wild places, and how we impact even the most remote corners of our country. The Guys explore how early European arrivals actually created wilderness out of a landscape long shaped by human intervention. They also find out how the city of San Francisco controlled the remote Hetch Hetchy valley, hundreds of miles away. Plus, they ask how our ideas about wild places have changed over time. Is there any wilderness left in the twenty-first century?