BackStory show


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 War Of 1812: Which One Was That? [rebroadcast] | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:02

200 years ago, the United States was engulfed in a war that had seen Washington, D.C. attacked and burned, and the nation's independence seriously threatened. Today, few people remember who we were even fighting in that conflict - the War of 1812 - much less what we were fighting for. But despite its forgotten status, the War of 1812 was hugely influential in shaping the nation we live in today. And so in this episode, we go beyond the trivia, and explore some of the war's deeper legacies. We look at why the war loomed so large in novels & poems of the post-war years, how the war re-defined government policies towards Native Americans, and why the war nearly led to a civil war within the U.S. Through it all, we set out to answer the most fundamental questions about the War of 1812: what did we win, what did we lose, and why should we care?

 Fair Wages: A History Of Getting Paid [rebroadcast] | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:02

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10, and then signed an executive order putting it into effect for federal contract workers. With legislation on the table in Congress and increases being debated in many states, this episode looks to the origins of the minimum wage, and explores how we’ve thought about fair pay over time. Along with their guests, Ed, Brian, and Peter discuss how slaves in the antebellum period could sometimes be brought into the wage economy, and how convict labor played havoc with wages in the wake of the Civil War. They discover why early 20th century feminists cheered the demise of state minimum wage legislation in the 1920s, and find out how the federal minimum wage came to be, a decade later. For more on the guests and stories featured in this episode, and for an array of resources exploring the history of Americans competing in sports on the world stage, check out BackStory's website:

 The Great War: The Long Shadow of WWI | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:55:12

World War I was sometimes called "the war to end all wars." But 100 years after the fighting began, it's become a war that's often forgotten in American history, or viewed as a prelude to WWII. In this episode, we explore some of the ways the conflict affected Americans far beyond the battlefields of Europe -- from debates about the meaning of free speech, to the fight over how the war would be remembered.

 Starry-Eyed: A History of the Heavens [rebroadcast] | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:02

Americans have had an ongoing fascination with the skies above us, so in this episode, we’re taking on space. 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.

 On the Take: Corruption in America | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:00

It’s a worry as old as the Republic: Do politicians look out for the public good, or their own private interests? But what exactly Americans consider the corruption of public office has changed over time. This week, BackStory shines a light on fears of corruption in America--from back room deals in Congress, to paying bureaucrats on commission, to the taint of corporate money in modern politics.

 Tapped Out: Thirsting for Fresh Water | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:00

The Western U.S. is in the grip of a punishing drought. Reservoir levels are dropping, and farmers are struggling to ensure water access for their crops and livestock. In this episode, we’re looking at how Americans have managed access to water throughout our history. From early legal struggles over natural waterways to the shared irrigation systems of New Mexico, we’ll consider how Americans have divided up water rights for private profit and public good.

 American Apparel: A History of Fashion | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:02

Summer might mean taking off the layers, but what Americans wear reflects so much more than the weather. In this episode, we explore what our self-presentation can say about our society and culture, and what fashions reflect about moments and movements in American history. Can fashion statements be political statements? How does fashion evolve, or does it revolve? And does the United States have a unique style? Just some of the questions we'll be asking about the history of fashion in America...

 States of Mind: Mental Illness in America [rebroadcast] | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:02

Recent estimates suggest that more than 50% of Americans will suffer from a "mental disorder" at some point in their lifetime, making the once "abnormal" - well, normal. So in this episode, BackStory looks back over the history of mental illness in America - exploring how the diagnostic line between mental health and madness has shifted over time, and how Americans have treated those on both sides of it. Listeners will hear how the desire of slaves to escape bondage was once interpreted as a psychological disorder, how a woman’s sleepwalking landed her in the state asylum, and how perspectives on depression altered in the 1970s. Plus, the Guys walk us through a mid-20th century quiz that promised to identify a new kind of mental “disorder” - our susceptibility to fascism. For more on the guest and stories featured in the episode and for an array of resources exploring mental illness in American history, check out BackStory's website:

 U.S. vs. Them: Sports on the World Stage | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:02

The World Cup has put the spotlight, once again, on Americans’ decidedly mixed relationship with soccer. Have Americans finally succumbed to the lure of the world’s most popular sport? Or do we like to stand apart when it comes to international contests—whether in soccer or other sports? In this episode, BackStory digs into the history of Americans as competitors on the international stage, and explore what’s really been at stake when the games begin. What kind of sporting prowess has the United States shown over the years? Are international competitions a form of non-military conflict, or a chance to build a global community? And what does it all mean for pride and patriotism at home? For more on the guests and stories featured in this episode, and for an array of resources exploring the history of Americans competing in sports on the world stage, check out BackStory's website:

 Independence Daze: A History Of July Fourth [rebroadcast] | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:00

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. For more on the guests and stories featured in this episode, and for an array of resources exploring July 4th in American history, check out BackStory's website:

 Legislation Impossible: The Civil Rights Act Of 1964 | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:15

In the summer of 1963, the prospects for a long-awaited civil rights bill looked dim. One book published that year called the situation hopeless, saying that Americans "underestimate the extent to which our system was designed for deadlock and inaction." But a year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the law of the land. So how did something that seemed so unlikely become a reality? On this episode, we mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by tracing the various strands of history that culminated in this momentous legislation. For more on the guests and stories featured in this episode, and for an array of resources exploring the background to the Civil Rights Act, check out BackStory's website:

 America, Inc.: A History of Corporations | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:59

The Supreme Court will soon rule on whether Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, can be exempted from parts of the Affordable Care Act on account of the corporation’s religious beliefs. Raising questions about “corporate personhood,” and coming just a few years after the Court’s still-controversial Citizens United ruling, the case has further fueled the debate over corporate power today. But how did corporations become such powerful institutions in American life? And how did Americans in the past view their role and influence? In this episode, BackStory explores the changing status of the corporation throughout American history. From the proliferation of corporations in the post-Revolutionary era to the rise of the Gilded Age giants, the guys and their guests consider how corporations have been viewed in the courts and by the population-at-large. For more on the guests and stories featured in this episode, and for an array of resources exploring the history of corporations in the United States, take a look at BackStory's website:

 Splintered Parties: A History of Political Factions [rebroadcast] | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:02

Eric Cantor’s shock primary defeat has left the Republican establishment reeling, and breathed new life into the Tea Party movement within the party. It’s another reminder of the powerful role that party factions can play, and have often played in American history. Disagreements within parties have shifted the terms of debate, forced new agendas onto the political stage, even birthed new parties altogether. So in this episode, the BackStory guys peer inside our political parties and explore some of the influential factions that have left a mark on the American political landscape – from the Radical Republicans after the Civil War, to the Dixiecrats after World War II. Plus, they look back to the early Republic and a time before the formation of party organizations, when “faction” was the only game in town. For more on the guests and stories featured in this episode, and for an array of resources exploring political factions in American history, check out BackStory's website:

 Mission Accomplished: How Wars End [rebroadcast] | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:52:03

At the end of May, President Barack Obama told the graduating class at West Point that “we are winding down our war in Afghanistan,” having committed to withdraw most US troops by the end of the year, and all of them by 2016. Ending the United States’ longest war has been a lengthy and gradual process, but have American wars typically had neat or definitive endings? In this episode, BackStory casts its gaze over prominent conflicts of the last three centuries, and explores what it takes to end a war - both in legal terms, and in the popular imagination. From military and diplomatic maneuvers, to courtroom battles and ongoing cultural conflict, the Guys and their guests explore whether wars ever really end. For more on the guests and stories featured in this episode, and for an array of resources exploring how wars have ended through history, take a look at BackStory's website:

 Black Gold: An American History of Oil | File Type: audio/mpeg | Duration: 00:54:19

Just in time for the onset of summer travel and the inevitable uptick of gas prices, BackStory gets into the oil business - with a look at our love affair with “black gold.” 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 BackStory guys and their guests look to the roots of that addiction, and explore how oil has shaped the American lifestyle and economy over time. For more on the guests and stories featured in this episode, and for an array of resource exploring oil in American history, check out BackStory's website:


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