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.
After grueling talks, the United States and its U.N. allies have reached a historic deal with Iran on the future of its nuclear program, and Cuba and the U.S. reopened embassies in each other’s capitals. Some observers say these agreements are inching America closer to a full reconciliation with these longtime foes. On this week’s show, BackStory digs up buried hatchets and dusts off a few of the country’s best and worst efforts at making amends, from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War. How have Americans tried to restore ties and move beyond strain and strife? When does it work? And what are the limits of reconciliation?
Here’s a line you might have heard once or twice: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But did the sentence really end there? Find out, this time on BackStory, as the Guys consider what “happiness” meant to Jefferson when he penned that line — and how it has changed in the centuries since. How have Americans defined success, prosperity and contentment? How have they carried out their pursuit of those ends? And how does the course of history square with their lofty goals? Brian, Ed and Peter mull these questions over in stories across the centuries — from a mesmerist who urged his followers to think happy thoughts to an early hit in the recording industry that will just crack you up.
It’s summer, the beach is calling, and so is the dreaded swimsuit! If it’s enough to make you want to hide out at home, then this week’s BackStory, exploring notions of the perfect American body, will offer some comfort. The episode surveys how ideals of the body have changed over the centuries — from a very slender male body in the 1800s, to the pseudo-science of “nasology” (which held that the shape of a person’s nose was the key to understanding their character). While steeling themselves for a look at the Cold War roots of that bane of schoolchildren everywhere — the Presidential Physical Fitness Test — Brian, Peter and Ed come to grips with a range of body history, giving listeners a bracing intellectual workout.
In the early days of our nation, July Fourth wasn’t an official holiday at all. In fact, it wasn’t until 1938 that it became a paid day-off. So how did the Fourth become the holiest day on our secular calendar? This episode offers some answers. With perspective from guests and taking questions from listeners, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore the origins of July Fourth. They highlight the holiday's radical roots, look at how the Declaration's meaning has changed over time, and consider how the descendants of slaves embraced the Declaration's message of liberty and equality.
Across generations, Americans have seen foes turn to friends and allies to enemies. So, as negotiations are in the works for a nuclear deal with Iran and to resume formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Guys explore how the United States has dealt with enemies across time. From the tarring and feathering of British Loyalists during the Revolution to comic book portrayals of Nazi Germany, Brian, Ed, and Peter consider how feelings of national animus have taken shape and what those relations say about Americans and their government.
With the Supreme Court ready to rule any day now on gay marriage rights, Brian, Ed and Peter wade into America’s long history of struggles over rights. How have Americans claimed, framed and changed their rights over time? Where do we think “rights” come from anyway… is it God, nature, the government, the founding documents? Join the Guys as they explore moments from the past that reveal how Americans have asserted their rights and — sometimes in the same breath — denied them to others. We have stories about freedom suits, religious liberty, labor law and... smoking rights?
The fastest growing major religion in the world today, Islam has some 1.6 billion followers practicing a wide array of religious traditions and speaking hundreds of different languages. And yet, even as more Americans convert to the faith and foreigners emigrate to the U.S. from all over the Islamic world, Muslims are still often caricatured in the American imagination. As Ramadan begins, we're replaying a show we did last year about America’s relationship with Islam, from the Barbary Wars and the narratives of Muslim slaves in the New World, to the precursors of the Nation of Islam and the Black Power movement of the 1960s. What has it meant to be Muslim in America — and how has the idea of Islam in the U.S. changed over time?
As crash experts sort out why an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia last month, killing eight passengers, Congress is still haggling over how to replenish the nation’s Highway Trust Fund before it goes dry. All the while, the safety of America’s roads and rails hangs in the balance. So on this show, Brian, Ed and Peter uncover the stuff of modern life that’s hidden in plain sight. How have Americans decided what infrastructure to invest in, how to maintain it, and who ultimately has to pay for it? Our stories take a look behind the scenes at the electric grid, the shipping industry and the origins of oil pipelines.
A recent ruling by a federal court said that much of the phone data the NSA has been gathering from American citizens for years was collected illegally. That decision set off another round of debate over the scope of personal privacy in a democratic republic like ours, and the means by which the government “keeps tabs” on citizens. So in this episode, the Guys explore the changing ways we’ve collected information on each other – and when it crosses from something necessary into something invasive. From early attempts to determine people's credit rating to the accumulation of data about Americans' "racial purity," the History Guys and their guests look at how, and why, Americans have kept tabs on each other, and consider how earlier generations have balanced the need-to-know with expectations of privacy.
For the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, BackStory goes into overdrive with a show all about speed in America. How fast — and slow — has life moved in different eras? And how has the pace of social change, well, changed over time? Join Brian, Ed and Peter as they head out to the racetrack, the ballpark and the trading floor ... and hustle from the halls of the Supreme Court to the speedy courtrooms of Reno, Nev. — once the divorce capital of America.
Two hundred years ago, there was no such thing as the “workplace” — and the tools of one’s trade were rudimentary by today’s standards. Since then, of course, America has witnessed the Industrial Revolution, the rise of white-collar work and, now, an age of digital devices that allows the workplace to follow us everywhere. So on this episode of BackStory, from utopian visions of the cubicle to video surveillance in law enforcement, the Guys size up some of the stuff Americans have worked with — and, in turn, how that stuff has shaped the lives of American workers.
Some 20,000 species across the globe are at high risk of extinction, experts say – many here in the United States – and some of our natural fauna have already disappeared. So in this episode, the American History Guys explore how Americans have grappled with the idea of extinction over time, and what the loss of native species has meant for our ecosystems and everyday lives. When did we first realize that species could go extinct? To what extent did earlier extinctions shape the emergence of today's environmentalism? And how have ideas about biological extinction factored into American thinking about human cultures? These are just some of the questions the American History Guys and their guests explore in this episode, with stories on our obsession with dinosaurs, the bird that helped birth the conservation movement, the unlikely fish that galvanized a new generation of environmental activists, and much more.
This week on the show we’re picking through history’s waste basket. What does America’s garbage tell us about its past? How have ideas about what is disposable and what isn’t changed over time? And have Americans always generated so much junk? To get to the bottom of things, the Guys are salvaging all kinds of trashy stories... about filth-eating pigs that once ran amok in New York City… about Americans’ legal rights to their own garbage… and about how Big Soda promoted recycling to boost the industry’s own bottom line. Plus, find out what an anthropologist sees in the decades-old debris now washing ashore at a place called Dead Horse Bay.
A lot happened in April 1865: Richmond fell to the Yankees, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln's funeral train set out on a long and meandering route for Springfield, Ill., and four years of brutal conflict came to an end. But at the close of the Civil War — 150 years ago this month — no one knew how things would turn out for the United States and the defeated Confederacy. This time on BackStory, the Guys dwell on that moment and explore the uncertainty of 1865. Would the rebellion resurge? Would Southern leaders be hung for treason? Would freed men and women enjoy full citizenship? ... How would a nation torn asunder ever rebuild?
This past week, a federal judge handed down lengthy prison terms to four former Blackwater security guards in the massacre of 14 unarmed men, women and children in Iraq in 2007 — a terrible reminder that not all is fair in war. Pope Francis meanwhile made headlines for labeling as “genocide” the mass killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. And in recent years, America’s targeted drone strikes against terror suspects has raised questions about what is and isn’t an appropriate means of waging war. So what are the “rules of war,” and who gets to decide them? In this episode, Brian, Ed and Peter look at how past generations have answered those questions. They explore the role the Civil War played in defining modern warfare, and, earlier, the violent battle tactics of European colonizers versus American Indian ways of war. And with the Syrian government facing accusations that it used toxic chemicals in a bombing raid on its own citizens, the Guys consider what made the use of chemical weapons taboo in the first place.