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?

An Unhappy Franksgiving

By Andrew Parsons

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt host Thanksgiving dinner at Warm Springs, GA, November 23, 1939. Courtesy of the Franklin Roosevelt Library.

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt host Thanksgiving dinner at Warm Springs, GA, November 23, 1939. Courtesy of the Franklin Roosevelt Library.

These days everyone seems to be concerned with the growing power of the executive branch. But there are limits to the public’s tolerance for a president’s authority…and apparently, it’s the holidays, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt discovered seventy-five years ago when he stood before the press, and casually announced that he was moving Thanksgiving.

The last time a president had meddled with the date of the holiday was seventy-five years before that, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it would fall on the last Thursday of November. But in 1939, the last Thursday fell at the very last day of the month, and retailers were concerned about the impact that would have on the Christmas shopping season. It basically meant a little over three weeks for Christmas shopping rather than a full month, especially concerning as the country was emerging from the Great Depression.

A letter from Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston, W. Va. protesting the change. Courtesy of the Franklin Presidential Library.

A letter from Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston, W. Va. protesting the change. Courtesy of the Franklin Presidential Library.

Letters soon poured in. Senator Styles Bridges, a Republican from New Hampshire, was one of many political enemies who claimed FDR’s Thanksgiving proclamation amounted to executive overreach. He opined, “I wish Mr. Roosevelt would abolish Winter. Millions of people can’t enjoy their vacations for thinking that in a few months they will again be paying tribute to the fuel barons.”

But it wasn’t just political. Concerned citizens, like insurance salesman Robert Benson from South Dakota, also expressed outrage. “After all this country is not entirely money-minded,” he wrote claiming the plan took the spirit out of the holiday season. “We need a certain amount of idealism and sentiment to keep up the morale of our people, and you, would even take that from us… and you must remember we are not running a Russia or communistic government.

Shelby Bennett of Shinnston, West Virginia took a more sarcastic approach. “I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to November 23 of which I heartily approve. Thanks,” he said before listing a few more changes to make.
“1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday
2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas
3. Have it strictly against the Will of God to work on Tuesday
4. Have Thursday to be Pay Day with time and one-half for overtime
5. Require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off for a fishing trip down the Potomac.”

Atlantic City’s mayor, a fellow Democrat, dubbed the president’s proposal “Franksgiving.” And it was parodied on radio, and on the big screen including a 1940 Three Stooges short where Larry points out that the 4th of July can’t be in October. Curly responds, “You never know. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!”

Many Americans refused to budge. Twenty-two states kept Thanksgiving’s traditional date on their books and few states played it down the middle, deciding to observe both the old and new Thanksgivings.

So why all the fuss? First, it messed up people’s calendars. Football games would have had to be rescheduled, and people weren’t too happy about that. Football was already a Thanksgiving pastime at this point.

But there was a larger issue. In his six and a half years in office, FDR had issued well over two thousand executive orders. That amounted to almost one per day, which more than any president before or after FDR. He had also attempted to pack more justices onto the Supreme Court so that his laws wouldn’t be overturned. While the Great Depression raged, this wasn’t as big of a deal for Americans, but as unemployment went down and suffering eased, many were ready to stand up in protest.  “Franksgiving” became the latest in a long line of unilateral declarations by the president.

Alf Landon, FDR’s 1936  erstwhile election opponent, characterized it as “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

Franksgiving remained in place the following year as well. But by 1941, it was clear that moving the holiday wasn’t having the desired economic impact. The president admitted that much. So in November of that year, FDR signed a joint resolution by Congress setting in stone the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

 This is from our show on fears of executive power. Listen to the whole show here.

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.

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?

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.

First Draft 12.01

In this week’s roundtable conversation, Ed, Joanne, Nathan and Brian focus on three stories in the news: famous men apologizing (or not) for bad behavior,  the Alabama Senate race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones, and the FCC’s plans to repeal net neutrality.

In this episode, Brian mentions Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech. View the full speech (with transcript) via the Miller Center. And to hear the segment of Brian interviewing Tyrone Jones, a Black Santa, check out “Being Santa.”

No such thing as a free lunch


"Over-indulgence--a spoiled Thanksgiving." Alice Barber Stephens, 1896.

“Over-indulgence–a spoiled Thanksgiving.” Alice Barber Stephens, 1896.

Eleven years before the start of the Civil War, as the abolition movement was reaching new heights, a man named William Alcott gathered his supporters together for a discussion about slavery–but not the kind that you’re probably thinking about.

“There is no slavery in this world like the slavery of a man to his appetite. Let man but abstain from the use of the flesh and fish, and the slavery of one man to another cannot long exist.”

Alcott was founder of a group called the American Vegetarian Society (or AVS), and an ardent believer in the link between meat and slavery. Consuming meat, he argued, caused people to become savage and corrupt, and slavery could only happen in a savage, corrupt society.

And Alcott wasn’t the only one who believed that if Americans stopped eating meat, slavery would eventually die. The AVS’ members dedicated themselves to pursuing a meat-free and slavery-free America.

Kansas became a battleground between abolitionist and pro-slavery settlers. Credit: Library of Congress.

Kansas became a battleground between abolitionist and pro-slavery settlers. Credit: Library of Congress.

In 1864, the Kansas Nebraska Act gave these abolitionist vegetarians a chance to accelerate that process. The decision to make those territories slave or free states would be put to a vote by the settlers there, and so members of the American Vegetarian Society flocked west, eager to make the territories a model for the rest of the country. Under the leadership of an atheist member named Henry S. Clubb, they joined the flood of people rushing to colonize Kansas and set up their own settlement. But things didn’t exactly go according to plan. Historian Adam Shprintzen, who’s written about the history of vegetarianism, described for us some of the challenges this vegetarian colony faced on the plains:

“The first group of settlers arrived, they were very enthusiastic about their cause of course. But then when the next wave of settlers come from the Northeast, the settlement itself is rickety, there’s maybe some old sheds barely with roofing on it…There’s a significant disenchantment really quickly and within three to four months, especially as mosquito season really starts to hit and people suffer…A lot of the reformers end up kind of turning around and heading back east.”

The settlers that remained ended up furthering their cause in a different way: joining the Union army. This was quite a turnaround for a group whose goal in promoting both vegetarianism and abolitionism had been a less violent, more harmonious society. Henry S. Clubb, former leader of the vegetarian settlement, was one of many who had to wrestle with his abolitionist and pacifist principles while serving in the Union army. Though Clubb served as a quartermaster, arming and supporting northern troops, he himself refused to carry a weapon.

With the success of the abolitionist cause, the vegetarianism movement lost its focus and organization. The AVS dissolved, and the alliance of anti-slavery vegetarians fractured. But vegetarianism as a social force was far from dead. Instead, as Shprintzen explained, the cause took on an entirely new shape.

“Because there is no organization, this allows for a new vegetarianism to crop up that focuses on the diet for its health benefits for the individual, and that those health benefits will then also help the individual advance socially and economically. And this is a real difference from the previous vegetarians, who saw their diet as a way to help others rather than only themselves.”

This new vegetarianism promised a new and improved self rather than a transformed society. Vegetarianism was linked to social success, being a better businessman, and even to athleticism and bodybuilding, giving Americans a whole new set of reasons to, as the Beach Boys put it, “chow down on [their] vegetables.”

This story comes from our show on the history of nutritional advice. You can listen to the whole show here.

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?

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