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The Last Best Hope?

Understanding America from the Outside In

 

From Oxford University's Rothermere American Institute, host Professor Adam Smith talks to guests doing world-leading research that sheds light on the United States from the outside in. We ask what forces have shaped the culture and politics of the US, how its role in the world has changed and what it might be in the future. Is America now, or has it ever been, the "last best hope of earth"? Probably not, but plenty of people have thought so. We try to understand why.

The Last Best Hope? is available on all podcasting platforms (including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify,  Soundcloud, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, Podcast Addict, Podchaser, Deezer, Listen Notes, Tune In).

You can also follow the podcast on Twitter for regular updates on new episodes: @TLBHpodcast

The title comes from Abraham Lincoln’s second annual message to Congress, delivered on 1 December 1862, one month before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation: "In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth." This is the classic formulation of the powerful and enduring idea that America matters because of what it stands for. It is a reminder of the importance of knowing how the rest of the world has seen America, as well as how America has seen the rest of the world, a task that is easier with the sense of perspective and context that is possible from Oxford. The question mark matters: on this podcast we don't swallow the Lincolnian claim to exceptionalism, but we do take it seriously. 


Episodes (Series 3)

 

Mural of Frederick Douglass by Ross Blair, Edinburgh (Melissa Highton, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, cropped)

The From Slavery to Snowdonia Episode
11 February 2021

Throughout the Victorian period, Black abolitionists toured the British Isles. In an effort to enlist British support for ending slavery in America—and later to enlist support for black rights—African Americans spoke not just in London or Leeds but in small towns and villages from the north of Scotland to the foot of Snowdonia and beyond. In this episode, Adam talks to Hannah-Rose Murray to ask why they came and how they were received. Abraham Lincoln may have thought America was the "last best hope" but at least strategically, abolitionists proclaimed Britain to be the land of the free and America to be a land of barbarism and hypocrisy.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Garibaldi by Giulio Carlini

The Confederates Who Wanted to Be Garibaldi Episode
4 February 2021

After their own successful secession from the British Empire in the War of Independence, Americans cheered on other plucky nations attempting to wrest themselves from the yoke of others. Whether in Latin America, Hungary, Poland, Ireland or Italy, Americans mostly thought that national self-determination was a good thing. So naturally, when they created the Confederacy, Southerners—some of them at least—hoped that the rest of the world would think them as heroic as Garibaldi. They were to be sorely disappointed. In this episode, Adam talks to Ann Tucker, author of a recent book about how the Confederates channeled the spirit of those European freedom struggles. What, after all, was the difference between the struggle for Southern independence and the Risorgimento? The answer is, quite a bit.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Freedmen voting in New Orleans, 1867

The Reconstruction Episode
28 January 2021

In this episode Adam talks to Eric Foner, the pre-eminent historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, about the resonances of the Reconstruction era in the present day.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, the US had to deal with a recalcitrant white population in the South who rejected the legitimacy of the Federal government's attempt to give political rights to Black people and who used political violence to achieve their aims. What lessons are there for the present day, in an America that is once again profoundly divided over questions of racial justice and about the basic rules of the political game?

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Joe Biden takes the presidential oath of office

The My Whole Soul Episode
24 January 2021

Adam talks to Mitch Robertson and Kate Guy about Joe Biden's inaugural address and the prospects for his administration. Is this a “new page in America’s story” as Joe Biden says? Adam and guests discuss the new president's appeal to his understanding of the "American tradition" and whether it will work.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Tarring and feathering an excise officer

The Insurrection Episode
21 January 2021

When Trump supporters invaded the US Capitol on January 6, 2020, in an attempt to prevent the ratification of the election of Joe Biden, the immediate response of many in the American media was that it was "not who we are". But in this episode, Adam talks to Bruce Baker from the University of Newcastle and Grace Mallon from Oxford, who explain that in fact there is a long American tradition of insurrection. When groups of people who feel entitled to be in control feel like they’ve lost control, attempts at insurrection have often been the result. And the example of the Revolution is always there to serve as a justification.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Trump in Three Positions

The Elected King Episode
14 January 2021

Why did the framers of the American constitution invest the President with so many of the powers and trapping of a king? Why does he have the power to pardon felons (including his friends), to command the army, and to veto legislation? More to the point, why did the framers end up creating a Presidency that, although elected, nevertheless wields more power than did King George III, or any British monarch since the reign of James II? Adam talks to Steve Sarson, Professor of American Civilisation at Université Jean Moulin in Lyon, and Nicholas Cole, Senior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford, to ask whether the American constitution created an elected king.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.


Episodes (Series 2)

 

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852 edn)

The Uncle Tom Episode
19 November 2020

Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was an outsized media event. No one in America in the 1850s could avoid knowing something of its characters and themes.  It brought into the homes and hearts of millions of Americans a dramatic and heartrending story about an enslaved family. White people who wanted to avoid thinking about the reality of human enslavement found it harder to avoid. Uncle Tom reached places that nothing else had – but did it really play a role in bringing about the Civil War? To find out, Adam talks to John Brooke, a historian at Ohio State University who thinks it did. The reader in this episode is Olivia Stakem.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Joe Biden, 2013

The Better Angels Episode
11 November 2020

A week after election day in 2020, Joe Biden has won the election with a margin of at least 5 million votes but President Trump hasn't conceded and may never do so. A defeated incumbent, an election that underlined the deep partisan polarisation of the American nation and a President-Elect who appealed in his acceptance speech to the "better angels" of the country – quoting, once again, who else but Abraham Lincoln. In this episode, Adam talks to Mitch Robertson and Kate Guy about what the election means for the US and its place in the world. Does Biden want to restore the "last best hope"?

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Fidel Castro at the UN General Assembly, 1960

The Viva La Revolución Episode
5 November 2020

In September 1960 Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban revolution and hipster lodestar for the countercultural left visited the belly of the beast, New York City, to attend the UN General Assembly. It was a visit that exposed the contradictions and tensions within the United States' efforts to present itself as the last best hope for the free world at the height of the Cold War. Adam talks to Simon Hall about this extraordinary event and what it tells us.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Simone de Beauvoir

The Last Best Hope Shorts: Simone de Beauvoir
28 October 2020

In this special episode, Oxford historian Charlotte Moberly tells the story of how the French intellectual and pioneer of second-wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir was personally and intellectually transformed by her visit to America in 1947. This is the first of a new occasional series of short podcasts exploring individuals' encounters with America – both the idea and the reality. In this episode Simone de Beauvoir was played by Olivia Marshall. Izzy Collie-Cousins was Janet Flanner, and Alex Hancock was Nelson Algren.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

General Harrison's Log Cabin March

The Harmonious Episode
23 October 2020

We can't imagine a political campaign without music – whether it's an election rally, a protest movement or a TV ad, music is essential. In this episode, Adam talks to Billy Coleman, author of a recent book about music and politics in the nineteenth century United States and asks him what music brings to politics and what we can learn from it about how politics works.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Cotton pickers, Houston, 1913

The "Did the South Win the Civil War After All" Episode
14 October 2020

In this episode Adam talks to Heather Cox Richardson about how the values the South fought for – oligarchy, and racial and gender inequality – outlived the Confederacy. Heather argues that American history can be understood as a conflict between oligarchs and masses. Adam asks her why that is. How does a "democracy" become an oligarchy? And is the politics of today an echo of the politics of 150 years ago?

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 


Episodes (Series 1)

 

Lincoln, 1863

The Last Best Hope Episode
21 June 2020

"We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth" – Abraham Lincoln's phrase in his message to Congress in December 1862. What did he mean? In this episode, Adam talks to Rachel Shelden of the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State. They discuss Lincoln, his opposition to slavery, his vastly more complex view of racial equality… and why he coined that memorable phrase. If Lincoln thought America had a "mission", the Last Best Hope? podcast has a mission too: to understand why people thought, and many still think, that America has a mission.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

from William Gropper, Construction of a Dam (1939)

The New Deal Episode
2 June 2020

Does America - and the world - need a new New Deal? If so, what lessons can we learn from how old orthodoxies in economic policy-making were challenged in the interwar period? In this episode, Adam talks to Eric Rauchway about the year 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office and immediately set a course that challenged some of the sacred shibboleths of economic policy-making.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Gadsden flag

The "Don't Tread on Me" Episode
8 May 2020

Is a country that's had a successful revolution doomed to endlessly re-enact it? In this episode, Adam talks to Professor Margaret Weir (Brown University and Oxford) about why anti-lockdown protests take the form they do in America: armed men entering legislatures and the waving of flags with the slogan "Don't Tread on Me".

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Trump coronavirus update briefing (April 2020)

The Federalism Episode
2 May 2020

Dividing power between the Federal government and the states may have seemed a good idea in theory to the founding fathers but in practice it's led to confusion and conflict. Donald Trump claims that his power is "total". State governors – and constitutional experts – beg to differ. In this episode, Adam talks to Grace Mallon of Oxford University, an expert in the reality of Federal-state relations in the early republic who tells us that's it's always been like this.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Baltimore riot (1861)

The Crisis Episode
2 May 2020

What is the difference between a "crisis" and a "not-crisis"? How do crises happen and how have they shaped history? Adam talks to Jay Sexton of the University of Missouri, author of A Nation Shaped by Crisis: A New American History, who thinks we're now in a crisis that, unlike previous crises, will leave the United States weaker.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.