History Unplugged Podcast

Scott Rank, PhD

A show about American history, world history, World Wars 1 & 2, the Civil War, and much more.

  • 48 minutes 23 seconds
    When States Rights Were Emancipatory and Federalism was Restrictive: The Interbellum Constitution of 1812-1865
    Today, the words “federalism” and “originalism” are bandied about in the news almost daily, but to get at the underpinnings of these modern interpretations of constitutional law, it is essential to look at how the Constitution was being interpreted and applied during the crucial period of 1815-1861, between the end of the War of 1812 and the beginning of the Civil War.

    Early nineteenth-century Americans found themselves consumed by arguments about concurrent power—the areas in which the Constitution had left the line between federal and state authority unclear. The scope of specific concurrent powers became increasingly important, and controversial, in the early nineteenth century. In 1815, the most pressing political and legal issues increasingly concerned situations in which multiple layers of governmental power overlapped—and the Constitution provided no clear delineation. Moreover, the choice of which level of government regulated each subject had dramatic consequences for the policy that resulted.

    To explore this topic is today’s guest, Alison LaCroix, author ofThe Interbellum ConstitutionUnion, Commerce, and Slavery in the Age of Federalisms.” We see just how deeply these constitutional questions dominated the discourse of the time.
    16 July 2024, 11:00 am
  • 46 minutes 52 seconds
    Is America Going Through a Late Roman Moment of Its Own?
    Every citizen of every state for the last two thousand years has compared his nation to Rome at some point. Americans considered Geroge Washington their Cincinnatus for taking on supreme power and giving it up once his work was done. Inflation hawks call for a Diocletian to end the debasing of national currency. Upset citizens call their leader a Nero for ignoring a conflagration in favor of musical composition. Americans can’t help but do the same now, especially when 2024 gives so much reason for pessimism and feelings that we are experiencing a late Roman moment of our own.

    To discuss this, we are joined by Jeremy Slate, a historian of the Roman Empire (and host of Create Your Life podcast). We delve into the parallels between ancient propaganda (think Virgil's book, The Aeneid, paid for by a Roman Emperor) and the modern echo chamber of 2024's media frenzy.

    Drawing inspiration from Diocletian's reforms in Rome's third century, after which Rome lasted nearly 200 years, we discuss whether a contemporary reformer could reshape our tumultuous 2024 landscape and restore stability. In an era of rampant inflation, immigration, and crumbling power structures, the parallels are uncanny.
    11 July 2024, 11:00 am
  • 44 minutes 49 seconds
    How Five Castaways Survived After Being Left for Dead on the Falklands in 1812
    Charles H. Barnard, captain of the American sealing brig Nanina, had only the best of intentions. His aim was to ensure the survival of the people under his care. On June 11, 1813, Barnard and four other volunteers disembarked the anchored Nanina, climbed into a small boat, and sailed about 10 miles from New Island to Beaver Island, both part of the Falkland Islands archipelago in the South Atlantic. Armed with knives, clubs, lances, and guns, and with the assistance of Barnard’s trusty dog, Cent, the five men planned to kill birds and hogs and take them back to the Americans and British who remained on the Nanina and were fast running out of fresh provisions. It was a mission of mercy.

    The hunt went well, and within a few days the boat was filled to the gunwales with the bloody carcasses of slain animals. But when the men sailed back to New Island late on June 14, they were greeted with an alarming sight. The Nanina was gone. Stunned, confused, and angry, the men hauled the boat up onto the beach and, according to Barnard, “awaited the approach of daylight in the most impatient and tormenting anxiety.” Sleeping fitfully in the cold night air, they hoped that in the morning light they would find a letter telling them why the Nanina had left, and when it was coming back.

    A frantic search at dawn turned up nothing: no note either in a bottle or hung conspicuously from a piece of wood or a boulder. They saw only sand, rocks, scrubby vegetation, and birds in the distance, walking on the beach or flying overhead.

    The events leading up to this abandonment, and what happened afterward, produce a story with so many unlikely threads, and a cast including such exceptionally colorful characters, that one might think that it sprang from the pen of a fiction writer with an overactive imagination. And yet, the story is true. It is a tale involving a shipwreck, British and Americans meeting under the most stressful circumstances in a time of war, kindness and compassion, drunkenness, the birth of a child, treachery, greed, lying, a hostile takeover, stellar leadership, ingenuity, severe privation, the great value of a good dog, perseverance, endurance, threats, bullying, banishment, a perilous thousand-mile open-ocean journey in a 17.5-foot boat, an improbable rescue mission in a rickety ship, and legal battles over a dubious and disgraceful wartime prize. And it all started with two ships—one American, the other British—sailing to the Falklands from different directions.

    To explore this story is today’s guest, Eric Dolan, author of Left for Dead: Shipwreck, Treachery, and Survival at the Edge of the World.”
    9 July 2024, 11:01 am
  • 56 minutes
    The Capetians: The Dynasty That Made Medieval France and Gave Us the Fleur-De-Lys
    If Gothic cathedrals, troubadours, and the Crusades evoke a certain picture of medieval Europe, you might be surprised that these foundations of a shared French culture continue to shape European society, all beginning with a single dynasty. Reigning from 987 to 1328, the Capetians transformed an insecure foothold around Paris into the most powerful European monarchy of the Middle Ages.

    Today’s guest is Justine Firnhaber-Baker, author of “House of Lilies: The Dynasty That Made Medieval France.” She tells the epic story of the Capetian dynasty, showing how their ideas about power, religion, and identity are all-too-relevant to the Europe we know today. The Capetians were the first royal house to adopt the iconic fleur-de-lys, displaying this lily emblem to signify the belief that their nation was chosen by God to fulfill a great destiny. By 1250, Capetian France stood as the richest and most prestigious kingdom in Europe, with Paris lauded as a new Rome, a new Athens, and—due to a tradition of both profound piety and violent persecution of religious minorities—even a new Jerusalem.
    4 July 2024, 11:00 am
  • 48 minutes 55 seconds
    Why the Book is Humanity’s Most Important Invention
    Even in our increasingly digitized world, the print book endures as a technology at the heart of human culture. Throughout its 550-yearhistory, the book has transformed at the hands of countless printers, bookbinders, typographers, and illustrators who have yet to see their own stories of innovation on the printed page.

    In “The Book-Makers: A History of the Book in Eighteen Lives,”  today’s guest Adam Smyth demonstrates the role of human agency in the evolution of technology, from binding to paper-making, typography to illustrations, and libraries to small presses. Beginning with the early printed books made by Dutch immigrant Wynkyn de Worde in 1490s London and ending with the zines in 2023 New York City, we look at the evolution of the print book through eighteen biographical portraits of bookbinders, typographers, illustrators, and more.
    2 July 2024, 11:00 am
  • 52 minutes 45 seconds
    How and Why Humans Started Speaking
    Most people know at least 50,000 words and speak around 16,000 per day. We speak between 120 and 200 words per minute and read them at twice that speed. We invent word games like crosswords, Scrabble, and Wordle, and we are constantly adding new terminology and slang to our dictionaries. Our love of words is no secret, but how we evolved to acquire so many words and manipulate them into complex thoughts is one of science’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

    Today’s guest is Steven Mithen, author of “The Language Puzzle: Piecing Together the Six-Million-Year Story of How Words Evolved. “ He explores evidence from linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, genetics, and archaeology to unearth new theories about the origins of language.

     Beginning with an overview of human evolution during which language evolved, The Language Puzzle looks to our distant ape and monkey relatives to see what their vocalizations can tell us about the foundations of language in our earliest ancestors. Mithen analyzes fossil evidence to explain what we can glean from changes in humans’ vocal tracts over time, and the linguistic implications from how our ancestors made stone tools.
    27 June 2024, 11:01 am
  • 43 minutes 28 seconds
    The American Detective Who Fought the Kaiser’s Spy Ring and an Anarchist Bombing Syndicate
    America in the early twentieth century was rife with threats. Organized crime groups like the Mafia, German spies embedded behind enemy lines ahead of World War I, package bombs sent throughout the country, and the 1920 Wall Street bombing dominated headlines. And one man was tasked with combating these threats.

    Born to working-class parents in 1867, Willaim Flynn launched the first antiterrorist program, unraveled a German spy network, and took on the Mob. Dubbed “the bulldog” for his tenacity, Flynn earned a high-profile reputation as one of the most respected, incorruptible, and storied law enforcement officials in the country.

    To explore these issues is today’s guest is Jeffrey Simon, author of "The Bulldog Detective: William J. Flynn and America's First War Against the Mafia, Spies, and Terrorists." He takes us back to an era when counterfeiters plagued butcher shops, German spies rode the subway, and anarchists bombed targets across the country, including using a horse-drawn wagon to set off an explosion on Wall Street that, at the time, was the worst terrorist attack ever to occur in America.
    25 June 2024, 11:01 am
  • 39 minutes 47 seconds
    Patton’s Tactician: Geoffrey Keys, “The Best Tactical Mind” of WWII
    Nineteen months after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and forced the United States to enter World War II, boats carrying the 7th US Army landed on the shores of southern Sicily. Dubbed Operation Husky, the campaign to establish an Allied foothold in Sicily was led by two of the most noted American tacticians of the twentieth century: George S. Patton Jr. and Geoffrey Keyes.

     While Patton is the subject of numerous books and films, Keyes's life and achievements have gone unrecognized, but his anonymity is by no means an accurate reflection of the value of his contributions and dedicated service in World War II and the succeeding cold war. 

    To look at this lacuna is today’s guest, James Holsinger, author of Patton's Tactician: The War Diary of Lieutenant General Geoffrey Keyes. His account begins in October 1942, prior to the invasion of French Morocco and Keyes's engagement in World War II and the Cold War. Holsinger has integrated a variety of related sources, including correspondence between Keyes, Patton, and Eisenhower. A day-to-day chronicle of Keyes's experiences in the World War II Mediterranean Theater and the early days of the Cold War in occupied Germany and Austria, Patton's Tactician is an invaluable primary source that offers readers a glimpse into the mind of one of America's most important World War II corps commanders.
    20 June 2024, 11:00 am
  • 46 minutes 49 seconds
    The Seven Cleopatras Who Ruled Egypt
    Behind the legendary, singular figure of Cleopatra stood six other women who bore her name. The infamous Cleopatra we think we know was actually the seventh queen in a long line of powerful female rulers whose stories have been lost to history. The seven queens named Cleopatra, ruling from 192–30 BC, defied the stereotype of the nameless, faceless women of antiquity and instead challenged the norms of their time.

    Today’s guest, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones unearths the lost stories of all seven monarchs in “The Cleopatras: The Forgotten Queens of Egypt.” Exploring a part of the Hellenistic World often neglected by historians, Llewellyn-Jones brings to life the complicated, tempestuous stories of the seven queens marrying the same man, sending armies into war, and plotting to overthrow their kings for sole rulership.

    While each Queen Cleopatra encountered a unique set of challenges and ruled with her own set of strengths, each generation influenced the next, culminating in a powerful dynastic line that ultimately transformed the imperial politics of their house into global politics.

    The Cleopatras shines a light on the six influential yet forgotten Queen Cleopatras and reveals how Cleopatra VII, whose real story disappears beneath the weight of all the stereotypes we pin on her, should be remembered as a consummate politician who learned from the generations of women before her.
    18 June 2024, 11:00 am
  • 52 minutes 46 seconds
    Modern Black Ops Warfare Began with a British WW2 Operation to Steal Boats Off Africa’s Coast
    When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Churchill declared that Britain would resist the advance of the German army--alone if necessary. Churchill commanded the Special Operations Executive to secretly develop of a very special kind of military unit that would operate on their own initiative deep behind enemy lines. The units would be licensed to kill, fully deniable by the British government, and a ruthless force to meet the advancing Germans.

    The very first of these "butcher-and-bolt" units--the innocuously named Maid Honour Force--was led by Gus March-Phillipps, a wild British eccentric of high birth, and an aristocratic, handsome, and bloodthirsty young Danish warrior, Anders Lassen. Amped up on amphetamines, these assorted renegades and sociopaths undertook the very first of Churchill's special operations--a top-secret, high-stakes mission to seize Nazi shipping in the far-distant port of Fernando Po, in West Africa.

    Though few of these early desperadoes survived WWII, they took part in a series of fascinating, daring missions that changed the course of the war. It was the first stirrings of the modern special-ops team, and all of the men involved would be declared war heroes when it was all over.

    To discuss this unit, dubbed by Churchill “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” is today’s guest, Damien Lewis, author of the book by the same name.

    13 June 2024, 11:00 am
  • 46 minutes 45 seconds
    The 7 Wonders of the Ancient World Were Colossal, Prone to Destruction, and Not All May Have Existed
    For millennia, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World have been known for their aesthetic sublimity, ingenious engineering, and sheer, audacious magnitude: The Great Pyramids of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis, the Statue of Zeus, the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse at Alexandria. Echoing down time, each of these persists in our imagination as an emblem of the glory of antiquity, but beneath the familiar images is a surprising, revelatory history.

    Guiding us through it is today’s guest, Bettany Hughes, author of “The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” She has traveled to each of the sites to uncover the latest archaeological discoveries and bring these monuments and the distinct cultures that built them back to life.

    11 June 2024, 11:00 am
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