The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


American as Pumpkin Pie [2016]

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.


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?

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Three Squares [2016]

Three square meals a day – we’re used to hearing this when it comes to dining. But for many of us, eating is as much about socializing as it is about finding the perfect nutritional balance. On this episode of BackStory, the Guys recover from their Thanksgiving feasts by looking back over the history of mealtime in America. From Victorian table manners to the battle over the federal school lunch program, how have our ideas about meals evolved?

City Upon a Hill [2016]

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama called America “the most powerful nation on Earth,” saying, “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us.” This praise is hardly the first or most impassioned example of American “exceptionalism” in the country’s history. But just how “exceptional” are Americans? And why does it matter? In this episode of BackStory, we’ll go behind the rhetoric to unpack the history and meaning of the term. From the Puritan vision of a “city upon a hill” to the 19th century concept of manifest destiny, we’ll explore the ways Americans have invoked history to justify their sense of superiority in the world, and assess the changing meanings of “exceptionalism” over time.




The holidays are upon us and we’re more than a little obsessed with stuffing – just not the kind you eat. On this episode of BackStory, Ed, Brian and Nathan find out about the father of American natural history dioramas, talk to a man with a condor in his freezer, discover how a mischievous raven connects Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens and unravel the extraordinary story of the man who proposed stuffing the Founding Fathers.

Imagined Nations

Is redskin 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 peoples have been represented — and misrepresented — in U.S. history. We’ll also ask how American Indians themselves have challenged and reinvented those depictions. We 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 that was actually made up entirely of American Indian players.

Health Nuts [2017]

Good fats vs. bad fats, milk chocolate vs. dark chocolate, red meat, red wine, carbs, sugar — all have been the subject of conflicting nutritional advice from “the experts.” In this episode of BackStory, the Guys explore the unexpected ways that past generations defined “health food.” We’ll look at milk’s transformation from a disease-carrying dairy product in the 19th century to “nature’s perfect food” by the 20th century, the popularity of gluten free diets in the late 20th century, and the emergence of the calorie as a way to explain the science of nutrition.  

Check out the Blueberry Torte recipe mentioned in this episode via The New York Times.

Standing Rock and the History of Indigenous Resistance in the United States

In 2016, protests broke out at Standing Rock – a reservation in North and South Dakota – to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Indigenous peoples and other activists opposed the pipeline because they believed it violated sacred sites and threatened to contaminate the Missouri River, a major source of drinking water in the region. Taking social media by storm, the #noDAPL movement quickly became an international headline.

On this episode, Nathan sits down with historian and activist Nick Estes to talk about his experience at Standing Rock, the history of Indigenous resistance, and the current state of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Estes’ new book is called “Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.”


News Bed Version 2 by Bobby Cole
Back Stairs by Podington Bear
The Album Clean by Podington Bear
Flitter Key Backwards Beat by Podington Bear

Naughty & Nice

Christmas may be the Big Kahuna of American holy days, but it wasn’t always so. It used to be a time of drunken rowdiness, when the poor would demand food and money from the rich. Little surprise, then, that the Puritans banned Christmas altogether. It wasn’t until the 1820s that the holiday was re-invented as the peaceful, family-oriented, consumeristic ritual we celebrate today. So in this episode, Brian, Peter, and Ed explore the fascinating history of the “holiday season” in America. Has Christmas grown more or less religious? How has the holiday evolved and changed here? To what extent was Hanukkah a reaction to Christmas? And how have American Jews shaped and reshaped their own wintertime rituals?