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.
On the night of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre. He died early the next morning. It was the first time a sitting president had been murdered. On this episode of BackStory, we’ll mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination by exploring how his death came to pass — and how a changed nation moved forward.
For Christians all over the world, the Easter season is a time of renewal, rebirth and reflection. Here on BackStory, it’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the history of religious fervor in America. This time on the show, we’ll go in search of profound moments of spiritual effervescence — from the first Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, to the megachurches and televangelism of the 20th century.
The western United States is in the grip of a punishing drought. Reservoir levels are dropping, and farmers are struggling to ensure their access to water for crops and livestock. Consider California. According to a water scientist at NASA, the state has only a year's worth of water left in its reservoirs. Some scientists even fear the West has reached “peak water” -- the point at which water resources simply can't keep up with water usage. In this episode, Brian, Ed and Peter look at how Americans have managed access to water across the generations. From early legal struggles over natural waterways to the shared irrigation systems of New Mexico, they'll consider how Americans have divvied up water rights for private profit and public good. And they'll dive into the debate over who could and couldn't use swimming pools in the 1920s.
For those of us who live on the mainland, islands are something we often tend to think about as destinations. As places to visit, perhaps, to take a break from our ordinary lives. And then to leave again. They’re places on the periphery -- and that’s borne out not only in the way we draw our maps, but also in the way we write our history. On this episode, we make the peripheral central. From the Caribbean to the Great Lakes to the San Francisco Bay, it's an hour all about islands in American history.
With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, we bring you this reprise of last year's St. Patty's Day episode: an offbeat, wide-ranging, and colorful look at the color green in American history. From the Green Mountain Boys in colonial America, to the Irish Brigade’s emerald-green flags in the Civil War, and the green superheroes fighting crime in 1970s comic books, this episode captures the varied and verdant ways green has worked its way into our history and culture.
As we switch the clocks to "spring forward" this week, we're taking a look at time itself in American history. In this episode, we look at the changing ways Americans have experienced the 24-hour day -- from pre-industrial times right on up through today's era of time-shifted media.
In his 2015 State of the Union address, the president defined “middle-class economics” as “the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Now, however you think of it, the middle class is a powerful idea in American culture. So on this episode, we explore the rise — and, some would say, the fall — of the middle class in the United States. What is the middle class, anyway? Who’s in it, and who isn’t? And how have middle-class lives and middle-class values changed over time?
U.S. history is everywhere in pop culture — in movies like Selma, TV shows like The Americans, even in video games like Assassin’s Creed, with a recent version set during the French and Indian War. So in their shout-out to the Oscars this year, Brian, Ed and Peter consider how all kinds of popular media adopt historical themes in their plot lines. How did last year’s art, literature and entertainment relive — and reinvent — America’s past?
In the past few years, the White House and the Kremlin have sparred over Syria, the Winter Olympics, and now, the crisis in Ukraine. It can be tempting to view these events through the familiar lens of the Cold War, but in this episode, the History Guys probe the deeper history of our relationship with Russia -- and discover moments of comity as well as conflict. From Civil War-era analogies between freeing American slaves and freeing Russian serfs, to early 20th-century debates over women’s suffrage, Americans have often looked to Russia as a counterpart, if sometimes a cautionary one.
This time on BackStory, we look at women in the workforce, from 19th century domestic workers, to the Rosies of World War II, to the offices of Silicon Valley... Consider this, for instance: Although personal computers are everywhere these days, in our pockets and on our dashboards, in the early days of programming a computer was someone very specific indeed. Find out who, on this episode. Plus, we examine the legal protections female workers have received from the colonial era to the present, and how "protection" often really meant "exclusion."
As more than 100 million Americans tune in to watch Seattle and New England duke it out in the Super Bowl, advertisers are vying for the nation's attention -- during all those seemingly endless commercial breaks. The NFL's championship game, after all, is big business. This year, a 30-second spot cost a record-breaking $4.5 million. So on this episode, the Guys tackle the history of advertising in the United States. When did the industry come into being? What makes a great commercial jingle? And how do you sell America on the idea of lunar exploration? We have stories that answer these questions and more. Plus, a special treat -- ads for BackStory in bygone styles, suggested by our faithful listeners.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is, of course, one of the most iconic speeches in American history. But in 1863, it got decidedly mixed reviews – one newspaper even called it “silly, flat and dishwatery.” So how did it become one of the most famous speeches in the United States? This episode of BackStory explores the evolution of an icon, and asks, more generally, what kinds of speeches – and speakers – endure in American history.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Today, Lincoln is remembered as “The Great Emancipator,” but the story of emancipation is complex and contradictory. And the question of how we choose to commemorate this anniversary can be touchy. On this episode, we set out to understand the way Americans thought about emancipation in 1862, and reflect on its shifting meanings since then. Along the way, we make stops at the Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C., the Civil War centennial commemorations in the height of the Civil Rights Era, and the former capital of the Confederacy today. And we hear the voices of former slaves themselves, remembering their first experiences of freedom.
At the beginning of the 20th century, oil was hardly on America's energy map. Coal was king, supplying as much as 90% of the nation's energy needs. And the second most used energy source? Wood. But in just a few short decades Americans would come to depend on oil to heat their homes, get to work, power their military, and supply the plastics for their appliances. By the dawn of the 21st century, President George W. Bush would declare America "addicted" to the substance. So in this episode, the guys and their guests look to the roots of that addiction, and explore how oil has shaped the American lifestyle and economy over time.
Across history, Americans have dreamed of what the future will hold, from the flying cars and 3-hour workdays of The Jetsons to fears of World War III and nuclear holocaust. Sometimes, we’ve made those dreams come true… or at least tried. On this episode of BackStory, Brian, Ed and Peter ask what these past visions of the future have to tell us about the times that conjured them up.