The Benefits of a Good Story: The BackStory Historians Take on Inauguration History

Although the parade is over, and everyone who attended Monday night’s inaugural ball has hopefully recovered, I still have one more addition to the 2013 inauguration conversation. Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a live broadcast of BackStory with the American History Guys at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on the topic of inaugural history. The setting could not be more perfect, as D.C. was already in the grip of inauguration fever as thousands of tourists circled the National Mall just outside the museum doors.

Image courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)

Inaugurations are a mixed bag for D.C. residents, as I have recently found out. Although the event is a tourist boon for the capital city, it also brings Metro snarls and overcrowding that can be unbearable at times. From my jaded urbanite perspective, I watched and commiserated as native Washingtonians begrudgingly filled the audience seats at the museum, no doubt reliving their heroic efforts to overcome frigid temperatures and downtown traffic to guarantee their seat.

All of the tension in the air, however, seemed to disappear as the History Guys (Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh) made an early entrance to the stage. As they snaked their way through the aisle between the crowd and stage, they were pulled in three different directions by fans and colleagues eager to shake their hands or even take a picture with them. Those who couldn’t secure a seat lined the balcony of the museum, straining their eyes to catch a glimpse at the History Guys from two floors down.

Soon after the program began, it was clear why it has become so popular. Between the good-natured teasing between the guys (part of which hinges upon an endearing rivalry between history specialties amongst the group), hilarious historical anecdotes about inauguration balls gone wrong (including an inebriated Vice President Andrew Johnson delivering an incoherent and rambling address), and interesting live audience questions, it felt less like I was in a museum and more like I was a privileged guest in their homes. They started the program with a simple but completely subjective question: What is America’s most important inauguration? Onuf—the resident historian of the 18th century—argued it was America’s first, when the future of the Republic was not a certainty and a terrified George Washington voiced his concern (and frankly, his doubt) about the viability of democracy. Ayers—the 19th-century specialist—refuted Onuf, arguing that it was Rutherford B. Hayes’s inauguration when Americans threatened to riot in the streets of D.C., a moment when the people faced many of the concerns Washington voiced in his first address about popular democracy at its darkest. The group did agree that Inauguration Day is a rare opportunity, as Onuf eloquently remarked, when Americans gather together “to look to the past in order to know what obligations we have to the future.” And with that, the History Guys artfully used history to offer their audience (including myself) a fresh perspective on the events going on right outside. I could give a more detailed summary of the show, but I could not do it justice. I strongly urge you to watch the video, here.

With full disclosure, I write this post fresh off the heels of Bill Cronon’s annual meeting address in which he implored historians to utilize storytelling more often. Not just to make history more exciting, but as a tool “to make the past—the dead past—live again.” With this frame of mind, I watched as these historians did just that: Galvanizing an audience full of cynical Washingtonians with a commemoration of the past, and offering a more complete understanding of the present. It was Ayers who referenced the power of storytelling in history best, telling a rapt audience, “History is unexpected. One of the amazing things about studying history is that it is one surprise after another.” Although BackStory with the American History Guys is a radio program intended to entertain, I think its format clearly offers lessons for the discipline on the benefits of telling a good story.

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