BackStory

BackStory

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BackStory with the American History Guys is a nationally syndicated, hour-long, weekly public radio show. We're based in Charlottesville, Virginia at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Each week we take a topic that people are talking about and explore its roots in American history. Through stories, interviews, and conversation with our listeners, we turn the things Americans take for granted inside out. And while we're at it, we have a lot of fun. Join us.

Episodes

Short Take: Native Americans, the U.S. Government, and a History of Treaties  

On Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers refused to issue a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline. The water protectors, which includes members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other tribes (as well as climate activists), celebrated the decision. But the celebration was brief as the opposition realized that this might be just another battle won in an ongoing war that has spanned centuries. In this Short Take, Brian talks to Robert T. Anderson, a Professor of Law and Director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington, about the history of colonization and treaties between the government and indigenous people. (Image credit: Protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.)

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New & Improved: Advertising in America [rebroadcast]  

Nieman-Marcus’ 2016 Christmas Book, which was first published nearly a century ago as a 16-page leaflet, is 300 pages long. According to Advertising Age, catalogs remain an effective way to reach consumers all year round. This episode of BackStory tackles the tangled history of American advertising - from the nation’s first billboards to catchy radio and TV jingles. When did the industry come into being and how did advertising executives sell Americans on the idea of lunar exploration? We’ll answer these questions and more.

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Short Take: A History Of Rigged Elections  

President-elect Donald Trump said the election was rigged because millions of non-citizens voted (although there is no evidence to support the claim), 2016 Green Party Presidential Candidate Jill Stein has requested audits in multiple swing states with Wisconsin being the first to begin a recount, and Hillary Clinton's campaign is willing to go along with a recount despite that Clinton allies are, according to Politico, "irritated with Jill Stein." Even with all of the talk of tampering, the actual chances of voter fraud are very slim now. The past, however, is a different story. In this BackStory short take, the Guys take a look at the history of rigged elections. (Image credit: Voting Machine Bumpersticker by GalacticWanderlust via Flickr)

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American As Pumpkin Pie: A History Of Thanksgiving [rebroadcast]  

If a Pilgrim were to attend a contemporary Thanksgiving celebration, he or she would probably be stunned by our “traditional” foods. In this episode of BackStory, The Guys discuss Puritan foods with historian James McWilliams, and religion scholar Anne Blue Wills reveals the surprising, 19th century origins of our national holiday. We’ll also hear from legendary NFL quarterback Roger Staubach about what it was like to spend every turkey day on the football field.

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A Whole New World: A History of Utopias  

In his recent book “Utopia for Realists,” Rutger Bregman advocates a 15-hour workweek, universal basic income, and open borders. Sounds like paradise to us! From the Oneida Community’s dream of open, or “complex marriage” to the rise and spectacular fall of Pullman’s model company town, the Guys look at why the idea of “utopianism” has such strong appeal to Americans.

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American Exodus: A History of Emigration [rebroadcast]  

With Donald Trump vowing to keep undocumented Mexicans out of the U.S. with a wall and Hillary Clinton promising the same immigrants a path to citizenship, immigration was a big issue in the 2016 presidential election. But what about the flip side – emigration? In this episode of BackStory, we ask who’s chosen to leave the U.S. and what parts of their American identities they took with them - from the free blacks who sailed to Liberia in search of true freedom to the Depression-era refugees who moved to the Soviet Union.

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Short Take: The 2016 Election  

Early this morning, Donald J. Trump was declared president-elect and will become the 45th President of the United States. The victory came as a surprise to many and it feels like a rupture in American history. Just what should we make of this and how can we draw lessons from the past? In this BackStory short take, Brian and Ed look to add perspective to this historic event. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons)

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Pulling the Curtain: Voting in America [rebroadcast]  

If the record TV viewership of the Clinton-Trump presidential debates is any guide, voter turnout for the November election could reach levels not seen since the Gilded Age. It’s easy to be nostalgic for the consistently high voter turnout in the late 19th century, until you consider all the people who weren’t eligible to vote back then. In this episode of BackStory, the History Guys look at voting trends - from the changing mechanisms of voting to how the electoral college system maintained racial hierarchies in the South.

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Short Take: FBI and U.S. Elections  

Last Friday, FBI Directory James Comey informed Congress of a potential link between a device owned by disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The disclosure effectively reopened the investigation into Clinton's private server and email activity during her time as Secretary of State. It also set off a firestorm of protests from both sides of the aisle. Just what is the role of the FBI when investigating politicians and did Comey cross a line with a move that many are interpreting as interfering with a presidential election within two weeks of Americans voting? In this BackStory short take, the Guys talk to Yale historian Beverly Gage about the history of the FBI's involvement in U.S. elections.

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American Horror Story  

What’s a Halloween show without a helping of horror, one of America’s favorite forms of entertainment? Rooted in legend and culture, horror stories play on our fears while often providing a distraction from the real sources of anxiety. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys look at the different forms horror has taken in American culture - from witches and vampires to slave revolts and haunted houses.

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Bridge For Sale: Deception In America [rebroadcast]  

America has a long and colorful history of confidence men and counterfeiters. On this episode of BackStory, we go back to the time when fake money and fly-by-night banks dominated the economy, and uncover the origins of the lie detector test, known as “the truth compelling machine.” We’ll also try to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

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A History of Manufacturing in 5 Objects  

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have talked about loss of manufacturing jobs, and the importance of having things “Made In America.” In this episode of BackStory, we take a look at the history of American manufacturing by exploring several objects that transformed American life. From 18th century colonists struggling to produce that most coveted of tems -- porcelain -- to the invention of nylon stockings and the TV picture tube in the 20th century, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore the surprising history behind five inventions and innovations.

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Fighting Words: A History of Debate in America  

With the presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton dominating the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, we’re taking a look at the history of political debate in America. Do Americans like to argue with –or past – each other? From the popularity of amateur debate clubs among young men in the late 18th century, to the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, and Gerald Ford’s infamous gaffe in the 1976 presidential debate, Ed, Brian, and Peter unpack the central role of debating in American democracy.

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Keeping Tabs: Data & Surveillance in America [rebroadcast]  

Calls to pardon Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who blew the whistle on the NSA’s secret internet and phone surveillance programs, have increased with the recent release of the “Snowden” movie. As the country once again debates whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero, BackStory takes a look at the changing ways we’ve collected information on each other – and when it crosses from a matter of national security into something more sinister. (Photo credit: Uncle Sam wants your privacy. Source: Jeff Schuler via Flickr (https://secure.flickr.com/photos/jeffschuler/2585181312/in/set-72157604249628154))

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Banned: A History of Censorship [rebroadcast]  

Americans have sought to censor all kinds of expression: political speech, music, radio, TV, film, even books. In this episode, Peter, Ed, and Brian mark the annual Banned Books Week with an uncut account of censorship in American politics, media, and culture. We look at efforts to prevent the discussion of controversial subjects from slavery to sex, Hollywood’s production code and how the line between free speech and censorship has changed over time. LANGUAGE ADVISORY: PROFANITY IS USED IN “THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH” AND “UP TO CODE." ALL INSTANCES ARE BLEEPED.

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Believer-In-Chief: Faith & The Presidency  

American presidential candidates are expected to proclaim their religious faith and the 2016 election is no exception. In this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore the complicated relationship between American presidents and their spiritual beliefs. We’ll look at how many early leaders, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, didn’t belong to a particular church, and how Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith’s Roman Catholicism was a flashpoint in the 1928 election. We’ll also hear how evangelical preacher Billy Graham became the spiritual advisor to a dozen Presidents.

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Believer-In-Chief: Faith & The Presidency  

American presidential candidates are expected to proclaim their religious faith and the 2016 election is no exception. In this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore the complicated relationship between American presidents and their spiritual beliefs. We’ll look at how many early leaders, like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, didn’t belong to a particular church, and how Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith’s Roman Catholicism was a flashpoint in the 1928 election. We’ll also hear how evangelical preacher Billy Graham became the spiritual advisor to a dozen Presidents.

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Body Politics: Disability in America [rebroadcast]  

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act made everything from parking lots to bathrooms accessible. But before this legislation, disabled people found their own ways to navigate society. On this episode of BackStory, we explore the history of disability in America. From the “ugly laws” that barred the disabled from public spaces to the grassroots activism that set the stage for the passage of the ADA, the Guys consider how people with disabilities shaped America and how attitudes towards disability have changed.

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Nose to the Grindstone: A History of American Work Ethic  

The Labor Day holiday offers some of us a much-needed break from work, but most Americans don’t get much vacation time. In this episode, the Guys look at American attitudes towards the value, meaning, and importance of work. We examine the meaning of the Puritan work ethic, and how race and class are often more important than hard work in determining achievement. We also ask why a strong work ethic has long been a key part of what it means to be American.

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Untrammeled: Americans and the Wilderness [rebroadcast]  

BackStory is quitting the city and heading into the wild. In this episode, Brian, Ed, and Peter revisit America’s fascination with wild places and learn how humans have impacted even the most remote corners of our country. The Guys explore how the first European settlers encountered a landscape long shaped by human intervention, and later, how the city of San Francisco found a way to control the remote Hetch Hetchy valley, hundreds of miles away. They also consider how our ideas about wilderness have changed over time.

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