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.
Christmas may be the Big Kahuna of American holy days… but it wasn’t always so. For centuries it was a time of drunken rowdiness, when the poor would aggressively demand food and money from the rich. Little surprise, then, that the Puritans banned Christmas altogether. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1820s that the holiday was re-invented as the peaceful, family-oriented, and yes, consumer-driven ritual we celebrate today. In this year-end special, BackStory takes on the fascinating history of the “holiday season” in America.
The word shop first appeared as a verb in the 16th century — when it meant to put someone in prison. And boy can shopping feel that way, especially around the holiday season. The smells, the colors, the teeming shelves and showcases, the muzak. On this episode, BackStory will go shopping for the historical roots of Americans’ consumer habits, considering the role of mercantilism in the revolutionary politics of early America, the journey from general store to shopping mall, and even look at shoplifting.
’Tis the season for giving. And on this episode, we’re going to give you the history of that. The stories we’re working on explore gifts in the American past and consider how ideas about charity, philanthropy and generosity have changed over the centuries. Sometimes, it paid to be poor — but not too poor. In earlier days, philanthropy had humble aims: to foster community and put the idea of charity out of business. Along the way, we’ll also look the questionable notion of the “free gift,” the idea of reciprocity in Native cultures, and the back story to the Salvation Army Santas.
With Republicans expected to gain seats in the House and Senate, it looks like President Obama will cap off his time in office with more gridlock. But if Congress can’t act, he says, he’ll use executive authority to sidestep the legislative process on key issues, like immigration reform and the use of force against Islamist extremists. Obama’s detractors have accused him of being an “imperial” president. It’s a theme that runs through the course of American history. Call it tyrannophobia — the fear that any one person or party could wield too much power over the body politic. But also: a strange, even paradoxical fascination with strong leadership. So this time on BackStory, we ask how perceptions of authoritarianism in the United States have changed over time, starting with the earliest colonial revolts of the 1700s against strong-arm agents of the British crown. Are wars a slippery-slope to unchecked presidential powers? Why does Congress complain about executive orders, while passing laws that grant the president so much power? And why were so many of the most renowned presidents also seen by many in their day as dangerous, even tyrannical?
Until recently, the link between a high fat diet and heart disease was one of the touchstones of modern medicine. But new research has thrown that connection into question, just as numerous studies over the years have brought new advice about health and diet to the fore. So in this episode, the Guys take the long view on nutritional advice and explore some of the more surprising ways that past generations have defined “health food.”
Is the name of a certain NFL team from Washington a racial slur? The U.S. Patent Office says so. So do many Native Americans who have protested the use of the term by that team. Activists say the team’s name and its logo — the image of a generic Indian man in profile, with braids and long feathers — celebrate negative stereotypes about America’s indigenous people. On this show, we’re taking a long look at how native people have been represented — and misrepresented — in U.S. history. We’ll also ask how American Indians themselves have challenged and reinvented those depictions. We’ll have stories about art in the early days of European conquest, dioramas in America’s museums of natural history, and a 19th century football team actually made up entirely of American Indian players.
On this episode of BackStory, Brian, Ed, and Peter take an in-depth look at stalemate in American history. Are there other times when the system has so routinely ground to a halt? Is compromise the main way of ending legislative standoffs, or does accommodation just tend to kick the day of reckoning further down the road? And if deadlocks are endemic to national politics, could they actually have a silver lining?
In 1883, a coalition of railroad officials carved the continental U.S. into five time zones, introducing Americans to the idea of “standard time.” Twenty five years later, the revolutionary idea was codified into law, with the 1918 Standard Time Act. In this episode, we’ll 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. We’ll explore the impact of those powerful Gilded Age railroads, and look the role of economic forces in shaping America’s relationship with the clock. We’ll also explore how people have experienced the rhythm of night and day — and why the advent of electric lighting changed that rhythm forever. Finally, is unlimited time always a good thing? We take a loving look at basketball’s shot clock.
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 and 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. This time on BackStory, we look at the longer history of America’s relationship with Islam, from the Barbary Wars and the narratives of Muslim slaves in the New World, to 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?
In America, you can be anything you want to be. Or anyone. Literally. So on this edition of BackStory, we dig into the long story of confidence men and counterfeiters. We discover a time when fake money jump-started the economy, and take a look at the long, strange history of “the truth compelling machine.” And, oh yeah… we try to sell the Brooklyn Bridge.
Columbus remains a central figure in American history: his name has been worked into numerous cities across the United States, ships, universities – even a space shuttle. And from an early age, schoolchildren learn about the voyages of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. But many Americans have also questioned Columbus’ legacy - should we venerate a man who symbolizes European colonization, and began the decimation of native American populations that would continue for centuries? With another Columbus Day upon us, this episode of BackStory looks back at the controversial Columbian legacy. When and why did Americans begin to revere the Italian explorer? Who has seized on his legacy, and who has contested it?
Stories about the surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S./Mexico border filled news pages this summer. It’s often been referred to as an immigration “crisis.” But American history is replete with stories of children leaving their families to start new lives in America. On this week’s episode, BackStory delves into some of these, including first-hand accounts of European children sent to America during WWII and of New York orphans who were put on trains out West a generation earlier. And the American History Guys consider the complexities of “humanitarian” efforts to save children from Communism during the Cold War, as well as from their own Native American pasts.
Fall has arrived, and all across the country, college students are returning to campus - and so is BackStory. Last year, President Obama proposed sweeping changes to the way government helps to finance students’ higher education, and an unprecedented system of collegiate rankings – all in the name of greater access and better value for the “consumer.” But others object to a consumerist mentality in the realm of higher education, and the application of “business” models to its institutions. So in this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed, and Brian take on the history of higher ed – exploring earlier battles over the nature and purpose of the collegiate enterprise, and what they mean today.
For many Americans, the storyline that played out on August 9th in Ferguson, Mo. — when an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by a white police officer — is not a new one. But the sustained protests that followed, in which Ferguson police used military equipment for crowd control, have generated a new round of questioning about local police’s role in their communities. So on this episode, we're looking at the history of policing in America, and how the police forces we’re familiar with today begin to take shape - and we'll consider what happens when the police don’t protect those they serve.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, BackStory heads into the wilderness, exploring Americans’ fascination with, and fear of, wild places – and the ways in which humans have impacted even the most remote corners of the country. From early early English colonists who saw wilderness in an already settled land, to 19th and 20th century Americans who sought to flee cities and find peace in nature, we're taking a look at how our physical and mental landscapes have changed over time.