The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Great American Speeches

As we work on our upcoming show about American Oratory, we’re compiling a list of the greatest speeches in American history, as suggested by BackStory listeners. Here’s what we have so far:

General George Washington’s “Newburgh Address” in 1783, delivered to officers of the Continental Army who were threatening to overthrow the government.

Selection from Washington's address to the officers at Newburgh, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Selection from Washington’s address to the officers at Newburgh, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro” – Frederick Douglass’ powerful 1852 speech on abolition and American ideals.

  • Hear historian David Blight discuss this speech, from our July 4th show:

President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” – delivered in November 19th, 1863, at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, PA.

Manuscript copy of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, given to his secretary, John Nicolay. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Manuscript copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, given to his secretary, John Nicolay. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Binding up the Nation’s Wounds: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865

Copy of the second Inaugural Address; endorsed by Lincoln, April 10, 1865, March 4, 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Copy of the second Inaugural Address; endorsed by Lincoln, April 10, 1865, March 4, 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Cross of Gold: William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 plea for the common man ( and a change in monetary policy) at the Democratic National Convention.

In 1921, Bryan recorded parts of the speech for Gennett Records – the audio is available via the Library of Congress, or you can check out this clip:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message to American forces before D-Day, 1944

Read the text of Eisenhower’s address.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address, critiquing the “Military-Industrial complex.”

President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address

Read the text of Kennedy’s address.

Landing a man on the moon: Kennedy delivered a special message to Congress on May 25th, 1961, where he laid out this goal. The following September, he delivered this speech at Rice University, making the case for the moon landing:

“Ich bin ein Berliner”: President Kennedy’s 1963 speech in West Berlin, Germany

Read the text of Kennedy’s speech, and learn more about the great donut controversy his speech sparked!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech,” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

We dedicated a show to exploring Dr. King’s speech and its impact earlier this year – “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”

Bobby Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“A real Texas accent”: Gov. Ann Richards (D-TX) at the 1988 Democratic Convention

Coach Jimmy Valvano’s speech on his battle with cancer at the 1993 Espy Awards

Neither Red nor Blue America. Then Senatorial-candidate Barack Obama, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.


PLUS! Courtesy of former BackStory producer Eric (plus listener contributions!): “every POTUS film speech”!

  • Armageddon:

  • Independence Day:

  • Head of State

  • Mars Attacks!

  • The West Wing (OK, TV counts here too!)

We’ll keep adding to this list, so please keep the great speech suggestions coming!

Got ideas or questions about American oratory? Take a look at how the show is shaping up, and share your thoughts!

A Bill for BackStory


BackStory is enmeshed in a grammatical crisis – and we need your help to resolve it. Divisions are forming, banners are flying, and a war of words might break out at any second over a critical question of BackStory policy: which indefinite article to use with the noun “historian”?

“AN HISTORIAN” OR “A HISTORIAN”? Our hosts took their grammar seriously in school and hoped they might one day be known as “AN HISTORIAN” – where the emphasis on the second syllable makes the “h” softer (more like a silent “h”), and so makes “an” the correct indefinite article to use. But some listeners and modern grammarians suggest “A HISTORIAN” is increasingly the preferred usage today.

What is at stake? For an overview of these grammatical issues, take a look at this discussion of the matter, or this one. (So interested you want to read a paper on this topic? See here).

How To Act: This is no time to be a passive bystander, but to stand up and fight for what you believe in (grammatically)! Submit your opinion through the poll below, and be part of the great BackStory democratic experiment!

We the Listeners to the public radio program “BackStory,” in order to form a more perfect sonic experience, do solemnly resolve and recommend that:

Poll Closed



Thank you to all who voted!

The Second Emancipation Proclamation

This piece draws from our interview with David Blight on this week’s show, “Fierce Urgency of Now.”

When the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago today, he began his famous speech with a nod to the Emancipation Proclamation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” King said, calling it a “momentous decree” that “came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”

Crowd gathered on the Mall during the 1963 March on Washington (Library of Congress)

Crowd gathered on the Mall during the 1963 March on Washington (Library of Congress)

A century on, that hope had still not fully translated into reality for African Americans, King said—and the March on Washington, of which his speech was the culmination, was part of an effort pushing for the full realization of freedom and equality. But that push wasn’t just a legislative one. Earlier in the summer, President John F. Kennedy had submitted civil-rights legislation to congress, but it faced a steep uphill climb against staunch Southern Democratic opponents. King had instead been aiming for a different solution—one that looked to the president himself and asked that he not merely celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation centennial that year but issue another one. King sought a second “Emancipation Proclamation”—a presidential declaration that would immediately outlaw all forms of segregation and discrimination in the United States. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King said—driving his message home to a very particular audience of one.

“It’s a rich, deep story,” historian and Yale University professor David Blight told us in a recent interview. The stage was set when Kennedy, during his second presidential debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, criticized the slow pace of Dwight Eisenhower’s administration in achieving civil-rights objectives and said that much more could be done. “Equality of opportunity in the field of housing,”—at least those housing programs supported with federal funding, for example—could be achieved “by a stroke of the president’s pen,” Kennedy said.

“Equality of opportunity in the field of housing, which could be done on all federal supported housing by a stroke of the president’s pen.” – John F. Kennedy. Presidential debate, October 7th, 1960.

The “stroke of a pen,” of course, was a reference to the president’s ability to issue executive orders—directives that require no congressional input to be implemented. “King and his aides never let him forget it,” Blight says. “Only a matter of days after Kennedy’s inauguration…[they] began to pepper the White House with first telegrams, then phone calls, then letters…”

In June of 1961, King held a news conference in New York calling for strong executive action. Coincidentally, the Civil War centennial was being commemorated across the country. Although King may not have seen how it and the Civil Rights Movement were occupying the same cultural space, his explicit call for a “Second Emancipation Proclamation” connects the two events.

King took the opportunity to press his case in October, when he had a private meeting with the president at the White House. So private, in fact, that the meeting didn’t appear in the president’s appointment book or have any official agenda. “King’s White House visit was deliberately made intimate but hidden, and social,” observed historian Taylor Branch in the Washington Monthly earlier this year.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice, at the March on Washington in 1963 (National Archives)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice, at the March on Washington in 1963 (National Archives)

During a personal tour of the White House given by Kennedy himself, King seized an opportunity to dramatize his desire for executive action. As they passed by the Lincoln Bedroom, he caught sight of a framed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation—signed in that very room on January 1, 1863. Standing beside it, King pressed Kennedy to issue a second proclamation—outlawing racial segregation by executive decree—and to do so in time for the upcoming centennial of the original. According to King, Blight says, Kennedy’s response was, “That’s an interesting idea. Why don’t you draft something.”

But issuing such a sweeping executive order would hardly be uncontroversial. And it wasn’t clear if it would be constitutional either. The New York Times in June quoted from Herbert Wechsler, a constitutional-law scholar at Columbia, who pointed out that Abraham Lincoln’s executive order had been issued in wartime, and there were still “grave doubts” about its legality until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. But King and the NAACP lawyers set about building the case for much broader action, drawing on any number of sources to make it.

In May of 1962, King called a press conference to present the fruits of their efforts: “An Appeal to the Honorable John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, for National Rededication to the Principles of The Emancipation Proclamation and for an Executive Order Prohibiting Segregation in the United States of America.” This was “a sixty-five-page manifesto which they hand-delivered to the president,” Blight says, “in which they appealed to the president to issue the second emancipation proclamation.”

“It is a fascinating document,” Blight says. In an eclectic “preamble” that drew from Woody Guthrie, Frederick Douglass, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and even Kennedy’s own words, the “appeal” laid out a compelling vision of American freedom—and the executive action required to achieve it. “We know that freedom is, indeed, a most precious thing,” the preamble began—the part of the document which King most likely wrote. “We know that ‘this land is our land, from California to the New York Island; from the Redwood forests to the Gulfstream waters,’ we know that this land exists for all Americans, white and Negro. However, we also know that to millions of Negroes throughout these United States, freedom is not yet a ‘living reality.’”

“[A] time of greatness, calls for acts of greatness…The full panoply of Presidential power must now again, as in 1863, be exerted in behalf of civil rights.” – “Appeal to John F. Kennedy,” 1962

“On several occasions you have said the times we live in demand bold, imaginative and courageous action by all our people,” it continued. “We, like you, Mr. President, believe that the time we live in is a time for greatness. The conscience of America looks now, again, some one hundred years after the abolition of chattel slavery, to the President of the United States….We believe the time has come for Presidential leadership to be vigorously exerted to remove, once and for all time, the festering cancer of segregation and discrimination from American society.”

And so then the document got down to business—transforming into a legal brief, making the case for the legality of executive action and the need for Kennedy to undertake it. They cited other executive orders, Blight describes, “particularly the modern ones by [Harry] Truman, that desegregated the military in 1948, or Franklin Roosevelt with the FEPC, the Federal Employment Practices Commission, in 1940, and so on.” They also drew on scholarly arguments for a strong executive that have gained ground in recent years, and on the words of a president who had exuded that expansionary vision: Theodore Roosevelt. King and his advisors drew special attention to Roosevelt’s belief, recounted in his autobiography, that “it was not only [the president’s] right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded un­less such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.” Where the law was silent, Roosevelt said, there was opportunity for executive action.

Telegram dated December 13, 1961 from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Kennedy (John F. Kennedy Library).

Telegram dated December 13, 1961 from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Kennedy (John F. Kennedy Library).

Though Kennedy as a candidate had talked about desegregating federally assisted housing with “the stroke of a pen,” he had seemed reluctant to do so once in office. Pressed on the issue at a news conference in early 1962, the president demurred. According to Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, “The President indicated his feeling that it was important not to move too fast in the field of race relations so as not to get too far ahead of public opinion.” And so despite the prodigious efforts of King and his team, the initiative seemed to be going nowhere.

By August of 1963, the urgency felt by King and other civil-rights leaders had intensified. That spring, state authorities in Birmingham, Alabama, had unleashed dogs and powerful fire-hoses on peaceful demonstrators, and King feared more such brutal confrontations.  With the prospects for comprehensive civil-rights legislation still viewed as bleak, the executive option remained tempting—if only Kennedy could be persuaded to act. According to Blight, King’s invocation of the Emancipation Proclamation in the “I Have a Dream” speech was partially intended to maintain that pressure on President Kennedy; King wanted Kennedy to use his executive powers and spare civil-rights activists a hard, bloody campaign.

So why have we forgotten this aspect of the 1963 March on Washington? Apart from the stirring and optimistic rhetoric of the last four minutes of King’s speech, another event halted King’s campaign for a second Emancipation Proclamation. On November 22 of that year, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas—ending his young administration, but also opening up a new chapter in civil rights. President Lyndon Johnson, once no friend of civil-rights legislation, now became its greatest champion, drawing on Kennedy’s legacy to build support for, and ultimately pass, the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. For all of President Kennedy’s personal sympathy toward the Civil Rights Movement, he would be a more effective ally in death than during his presidency. These legislative achievements, after all, would ultimately fulfill the legal goals of the second Emancipation Proclamation King had proposed and help fully realize the moral promise of the first.

Emily J. Charnock is an assistant producer at BackStory with the American History Guys. Virginia Quarterly Review contributing editor Jesse Dukes contributed to this piece. This article is co-published with the  Virginia Quarterly Review.

Further Exploration

  • You can also see the telegram King sent to Kennedy, urging action, and other materials related to Civil Rights, at the John F. Kennedy library’s online exhibit.

“I have a dream” at 50


50 years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial – the culmination of the 1963 March on Washington, and a crucial moment in American history.

You can read the full text of King’s speech at the National Archives.

The Chemical Weapons Conundrum

In December 2012, President Obama addressed reports that Syrian president Bashir Assad was on the verge of using chemical weapons against rebels in his country.

“And today, I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences. And you will be held accountable.” – President Barack Obama, December 2012.

If recent reports are to be believed, Assad took this very step last week – allegedly using chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus, killing hundreds. Obama and leaders around the world are now determining their response – but what is it about chemical weapons that led Obama to issue such a strong warning last year?  Why do such weapons seem so much worse than conventional ones?  It’s a question we addressed earlier this year on our show, “Rules of Engagement,” which looked at ethics in warfare over time.

To help us answer it, we talked with Richard Price, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia and author of The Chemical Weapons Taboo (1997).  Take a listen to the interview, and learn about the history of chemical warfare:


Elvis, Nixon, & the War on Drugs

It’s 36 years ago today since Elvis Presley died, following a battle with prescription drugs. But he famously offered to help President Richard Nixon fight the growing “drug culture” in America that seemed to have taken off in the 1960s.  The iconic picture of the two meeting in the Oval Office, on December 21, 1970, is the most requested photograph from the National Archives and reproduced everywhere.

Elvis Presley meets President Nixon, 12/21/1970 (National Archives)

Elvis Presley meets President Nixon, 12/21/1970 (National Archives)

But the Archives also has some other amazing stuff from that meeting, including the initial letter Elvis wrote requesting it!  Check it out here and see more from the Elvis/Nixon meeting at:

For the bigger picture on America’s complicated relationship with drugs – legal and otherwise – check out BackStory’s episode “All Hopped Up,” which we’ll be rebroadcasting this week. 


Ed Ayers receives National Humanities Medal

President Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Edward L. Ayers. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to Edward L. Ayers. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

BackStory and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities are extremely proud of our 19th Century American History Guy – otherwise known as Edward L. Ayers, President of the University of Richmond and historian extraordinaire, who was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama last week. Ed was recognized at a White House ceremony on July 10th, along with eleven other 2012 National Humanities Medal and twelve 2012 National Medal of Arts recipients.

In addition to sharing thought-provoking aspects of history with public radio listeners on BackStory each week, and leading the University of Richmond, Ed has found time to be the author or editor of ten books (including the Bancroft Prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies), as well as undertaking innovative digital scholarship. While serving as Hugh P. Kelly Professor of History and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, Ed directed the online history project “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” and at Richmond, he has championed the Digital Scholarship Lab.

President Ayers’s National Humanities Medal citation reads as follows:

Edward L. Ayers for his commitment to making our history as widely available and accessible as possible. Dr. Ayers’s innovations in digital humanities extend higher learning beyond campus boundaries and allow broad audiences to discover the past in new ways.

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.

Since 1996, when the first National Humanities Medal was given, 145 individuals have been honored, inclusive of this year’s awardees. Ten organizations also received medals. Previous medalists include Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, novelist John Updike, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, sociologist Robert Coles, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg. A complete list of previous honorees is available online.

The National Endowment for the Humanities [NEH] was created in 1965 as an independent Federal agency. The NEH supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation, and brings high-quality historical and cultural experiences to large and diverse audiences in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and five territories.

The National Medal of Arts is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States Government. The National Medal of Arts is awarded by the President of the United States to individuals or groups who “…are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.”

The National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] was established by the Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the Federal Government. To date, the NEA has awarded more than $4 billion to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities. The NEA extends its work through partnerships with State arts agencies, local leaders, other Federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector.

The President presented awards to the following individuals and organizations:

2012 National Humanities Medal

  • Edward L. Ayers, Henrico, VA
  • William G. Bowen, Princeton, NJ
  • Jill Ker Conway, Boston, MA
  • Natalie Zemon Davis, Toronto, CANADA
  • Frank Deford, New York, NY
  • Joan Didion, New York, NY
  • Robert Putnam¸ Cambridge, MA
  • Marilynne Robinson¸ Iowa City, IA
  • Kay Ryan, Fairfax, CA
  • Robert B. Silvers, New York, NY
  • Anna Deavere Smith¸ New York, NY
  • Camilo José Vergara, New York, NY

2012 National Medal of Arts

  • Herb Alpert, Malibu, CA
  • Lin Arison, Bal Harbour, FL
  • Joan Myers Brown, Philadelphia, PA
  • Renée Fleming, New York, NY
  • Ernest Gaines, Oscar, LA
  • Ellsworth Kelly, Spencertown, NY
  • Tony Kushner, New York, NY
  • George Lucas, San Anslemo, CA
  • Elaine May, New York, NY
  • Laurie Olin, Philadelphia, PA
  • Allen Toussaint, New Orleans, LA
  • Washington Performing Arts Society, Washington, DC 

More details on each of the recipients.

BackStory, With the American History Guys is a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities weekly radio show featuring historians who explore contemporary topics through three centuries of American history. For more information about BackStory, visit

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH), established in 1974, encourages discovery and connection through the humanities by supporting and producing programs for a wide public audience.  It works with individuals and communities to explore the past, confront issues of the present, and discover a promising future.  For more information about VFH, visit

Horses on treadmills! (c. 1881)

horses-on-treadmillsA team-horse treadmill in the Gray’s Horse Powers catalogue, c. 1881. (Smithsonian institution). From the fabulous article at Lapham’s Quarterly.

“There were horse-powered ferryboats; horse-powered hay balers and cotton-gins; even horse-powered chocolate factories. For its first few years, Manhattan’s municipal water system was powered by horses turning a pump wheel. The work did not benefit the horses much: some retired animals continued to circle compulsively.”

How the Chess Set Got Its Look and Feel

from Design Decoded:


Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture had been influenced by a renewed interest in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, which captured the popular imagination after the rediscovery of Pompeii in the 18th century. The work of architects like Christopher Wren, William Chambers, John Soane, and many others inspired the column-like, tripartite division of king, queen, and bishop. A row of Staunton pawns evokes Italianate balustrades enclosing of stairways and balconies.