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The Last Best Hope?

Understanding America from the Outside In

 

On our podcast, our Director 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 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.

The Last Best Hope? is available on all podcasting platforms (including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify). Follow the podcast on Twitter for regular updates on new episodes: @TLBHpodcast


Episodes (Series 4)

 

american dream 500px

The 'Crisis' of the Middle Class Episode
11 June 2021

Has the ‘American Dream’ died? If the ‘dream’ is one of a confident expectation of increasing affluence across generations, then perhaps it has. While politicians in both parties talk about a crisis of the ‘middle class’, young people in America now find it harder to get on the property ladder, to go to college, and even to make ends meet week by week, without falling into a debt trap. Adam talks to Devin Fergus, author of Land of the Fee, and Jacob Hacker, co-author of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Jefferson mirrored

The American Dilemma Episode
28 May 2021

What are we to make of the most famous of American paradoxes: that Thomas Jefferson, who claimed as a “self-evident truth” the principle that “all men are created equal” was a slaveholder? In this episode, Adam discusses this problem with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed. With the US undergoing one of the most profound racial reckonings for decades, how should the morally ambiguous legacy of the Founders be understood?

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Nick Bryant

The What's Wrong With America Episode
21 May 2021

Has America lost its allure to the rest of the world? Has it lost its confidence, its optimism, its sense of openness? In this episode, Adam talks to Nick Bryant, the BBC correspondent in New York and author of When America Stopped Being Great, about the changing image of the US between the 1980s and the present. The two discuss whether America still has the capacity to solve its own problems—or to believe that it can. And Adam asks if the BLM protests have created a new, progressive image of a US counterculture that is, once again, drawing idealistic young people towards a different kind of American dream?

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Royal family

The Royal America Episode
14 May 2021

The soap opera of Meghan and Harry, the deploying of Prince Philip in America's culture wars: why does the British royal family exert so strong an appeal in republican America? This is not a new phenomenon. Queen Victoria's son, later Edward VII, toured America on the eve of the Civil War and was greeted with adulation. What's going on? Adam talks to Arianne Chernock and Frank Prochaska to find out.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

moscow Olympics cartoon

The Boycott Episode
7 May 2021

In 1980, Jimmy Carter's administration leaned on the US Olympic Committee to boycott the Moscow Games.  Today, there are calls for the US to once again boycott the Olympics—this time in Beijing. What are the lessons of the 1980 boycott? Can sport ever be an effective instrument of foreign policy? And does the US any longer have the credibility as the "leader of the free world" to take a stance on human rights. Adam talks to Joe Onek, Deputy Counsel to President Carter who managed the White House's efforts to boycott the Olympics, and the historians Nicholas Sarantakes and Patrick Andelic.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.

 

Jenny Lind (contemporary poster)

The Swedish Nightingale Episode
30 April 2021

Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale": a soprano who made strong men weep with the beauty of her voice. In this episode, Adam explores the Nightingale's sensational tour of the US in 1850-52. She was described as the "most famous woman in the world" by her promoter, the never-knowingly-underselling impresario P. T. Barnum. Her reputation for virtue did much to make theatre and performance respectable, but as Lind travelled across America, the country was riven by slavery. How would she navigate those divisions while retaining her reputation, and making money? The guests are Robert Wilson, author of Barnum: An American Life, and the music historian Katherine Preston. Reader: Dane Udenberg. Producer: Emily Williams. Presenter: Adam Smith.

Download this episode here.
View a transcript here.


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.