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Unpacking America’s Origin Story: A Conversation with Podcaster and Author Mike Duncan

When Mike Duncan recorded the first episode of his award-winning history podcast, The History of Rome, in 2007, his main motivational thought was this: While he might not become the world’s best history podcaster, he definitely wouldn’t be the worst. Armed only with his iMac and a never-ending well of information, Duncan launched The History of Rome. Despite that initial pessimism and his lack of formal training in broadcasting, Duncan’s podcast has earned critical acclaim. At the 2010 People’s Choice Podcast Awards, The History of Rome won best educational podcast. Two years later, “The End” (The History of Rome’s final episode) was released. The History of Rome features 179 episodes, earns a five-star rating on both iTunes and Podbay, and is now considered one of the most interesting and succinctly researched historical podcasts on the market. That podcast’s success inspired Duncan to create Revolutions, a long form narrative podcast that examines great political revolutions around the world, in 2013. Four years and six revolutions later, Revolutions is on track to surpass the length of Duncan’s first series. David Snipes, a critic at Best History Podcasts, says that Duncan is “considered a Gold Standard for his work, and [Revolutions] is a major reason why.”

Storm Before the Storm
Mike Duncan’s book—The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic (photo courtesy of Mike Duncan).

Duncan’s encyclopedic knowledge of world history, a considerable reason for his work’s acclaim, is rooted in a lifelong interest in history and political theory. He graduated from Western Washington University with a bachelor’s in political science and a minor in philosophy, and he credits his undergrad experience with expanding his interest in history to include his passion for political theories — specifically, ancient Roman political theories. In the time leading up to his decision to start The History of Rome, Duncan taught himself everything he could about ancient Rome, trying to supplement his post-graduate Roman education by reading old theoretical texts and looking for historical podcasts (like 12 Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth, a personal favorite) to help him better understand Roman history.

Duncan continues his legacy as a research-loving history buff with his forthcoming book, The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic (Public Affairs/Hachette Book Group, October 2017). Re-enact spoke with Duncan about his podcasts, his love for the American Revolution, and how understanding something’s history can help change the way we understand ourselves.

Re-enact: What is it that you love about history?

Mike Duncan: For me personally, how I understand things is how I understand the history of something. If I’m encountering something new for the first time, whether it’s a country, or a sport, or a device, what I want to know about it is: Where did it come from? What were its origins? Who influenced its developments? What are the things that happened along the way that made it what it is today? I don’t understand anything unless I understand the history of the thing. For you to know somebody, you have to know their biography, which is just their own personal history. So when I get interested in something, the first thing that I go to is: What is its history?

R: When you first became interested in history as a kid, your favorite topic was the American Revolution. What is it about that war that fascinated you?

M.D.: I think it’s because it’s the origin story, and everybody loves a good origin story. To understand where we are now, you want to go all the way back to the beginning. Where did it come from originally? How did it get to be the way it is today? I think that origin story is probably the thing that really captures it. When people go see movies about like, superheroes, what do you want to know? You want to know how they went from being nobody to being a superhero. With the United States, how did it go from being nothing to being a country on this earth that exists? And that’s the American Revolution.

R: What do you think were the most significant moments of the Revolution?

Mike Duncan
Podcaster and author Mike Duncan (photo courtesy of Mike Duncan).

M.D.: I would probably have a different answer tomorrow, and I probably would’ve had a different answer yesterday, but I think the Stamp Act is the first thing because that was the first time that the colonists were confronted with a new colonial policy from the British. And that led directly to the Stamp Act Congress. Before the Revolution — if you listen to the show you know this — but the colonies were very fractured. They were rivals of each other. They were never partners in anything. The Pennsylvanians hated the people from New York, who hated the people from Boston. And the Stamp Act was the first time the colonies all got together and were like, “We actually have a common grievance here.” It was really the kernel in the pan of North American unity.

The second thing — literally a decade later — would then be very similar: The Intolerable Acts. After the Boston Tea Party, the British then handed down the Intolerable Acts on Boston. There were others along the way, but that was the next major provocation that leads to the first and the Second Continental Congresses, which again, the British were doing things to the North American colonies that led the colonies to unite with each other in a sort of single common cause. So then you’re already sliding downhill to Lexington and Concord at that point.

Then, I’m going to be very obvious and say the Battle of Saratoga, or the Battles at Saratoga, which leads directly to France getting involved in the War. Without the French, we never would have won the thing.

R: Do you have a favorite moment, maybe one that is less famous?

M.D.: I do, and it’s tied to Saratoga. It’s what I call Gentleman Johnny’s Party Train [laughs]. In history, I don’t like to just talk about the great things that happened or the brilliant maneuvers. I like a good blunder here and again. [John] Burgoyne’s entire operation coming out of Canada to the south, that was just a blunder from beginning to end. He was so cocky. It was just supposed to be this rolling party that was going to take them all the way to New York City, and instead, they just got blasted out in the middle of the woods. It’s a great story, but it’s a miserable one.

R: Who were the most integral figures during the Revolution, and do you have a favorite?

M.D.: Of the major players, the list is super obvious, right? Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they were the most important people. And of those people, I’ve always been a fan of George Washington in particular. I think he was, as individuals go, the most indispensable. The rest of the founders would say this, you know. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, they’ve all had their differences with each other, but they all pretty much agreed that without Washington being at the center of it, and really never wilting — even though he probably should’ve wilted multiple times — the project wouldn’t have come off.

gentleman johnnys party train
A print Duncan used during his tour of the Northeast for Revolutions, referencing John Burgoyne’s blundering march to New York City (photo courtesy of Mike Duncan).

R: There are also a great deal of people who are forgotten or written out of history. Does anyone from that list come to mind?

M.D.: I think the biggest of them would be John Dickinson. He’s just not remembered at all. He’s been completely written out of the history of the American Revolution. But after the Stamp Act of the 1760s, he wrote the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which was the most radical series of pamphlets that the colonies had ever seen advocating for greater rights for the colonists, arguing against what the British were doing. And before Thomas Payne’s Common Sense comes along, Dickinson’s pamphlets were the most popular piece of literature in the history of the colonies.

So, he was out on this leading edge of radicalism and pushing back against what the British were doing. He was at the Stamp Act Congress, he was in the First Continental Congress, and then he was in the Second Continental Congress, and then, in the future, he was one of the principal authors of the Articles of Confederation and was involved in the Constitutional Conventions. There’s this list that historians have of like, the great congresses or assemblies between 1765 and 1789, and Dickinson was in every single one of them, and was a major player in every one of them.

The question is then, well, why don’t we know anything about this guy who was so integral? And it was because, at the second Continental Congress, he was the one who was saying, “We should actually not declare independence from Britain. We have the right to fight for our rights as Englishmen, and we should continue to resist and we should force them to make concessions, but, at the end of the day, I don’t think that we should declare independence.” And so once independence was declared, he just got written out. If he’s ever mentioned at all, it’s like, “Oh, that Dickinson, he’s the one who didn’t want us to be free,” which is really not fair to him at all, because after the vote for independence that he opposed, he joined the militia and wound up fighting in Rhode Island. He was one of the few guys who actually picked up arms and then fought, even though he didn’t think we should have declared independence. When I went into Revolutions, I personally didn’t know much about John Dickinson, but he just kept showing up. So I was like, ‘God, this guy is so interesting,’ and now, people talk about him.

R: What are some of the more underrated events that happened during the Revolution that a person may not learn in a basic history class?

M.D.: After Saratoga and the Battle of Monmouth, which is in 1778, the narrative of the Revolution just kind of skips to Yorktown, which is [three] years later. It’s like, oh, the French got into it, and then later we trapped [the British] in Yorktown and won the War. Well, there was an incredible load of stuff that happened when the War moved down to the Southern colonies. That is something that is really just … I feel for them. I have a lot of fans in the South, and they kind of talk to me about this, but their entire role just gets written out, and we just don’t talk about it at all. I’m not sure where that comes from, and I speculate sometimes that it’s kind of like a hangover from the Civil War. After the Union won the Civil War, we kind of wanted to then say that it was really the North that carried the Revolution, and just not talk about anything that the Southern states did.

Then, when we think about who the Continental Armies were, who the British armies were, who was involved in it, we think about it being a bunch of white people running around. There’s not a lot of talk about what the Native American tribes were doing, who they were aligned with, what role that they played, what role, if any, freed slaves or freedmen in the North played. There are all these different groups that were present whose contributions have really been downplayed.

R: So why do you think people remain interested in studying and talking about the Revolution?

M.D.: Everyone loves a good origin story, and everybody loves an underdog story. That’s why we like Star Wars so much. It’s a little band of rebels going against a big evil empire. Some of what Lucas was doing with Star Wars was intentionally sort of playing on the story of the American Revolution. Of course, they don’t have the French Navy come in and save the rebels at the end — I guess that would be the Ewoks [laughs].

And then, the United States is a country that is so weird. If you go to Britain, or to France, Germany, or Russia, they have a history that stretches back to like, the Neolithic Era. Whereas the United States is like an idea that was created at a certain point in time. We still live by the Constitution that they wrote, the Bill of Rights that they wrote, and there is still today this impetus for Americans to live by these things that the Founding Fathers laid down for us, these principles the Founding Fathers set for us to live by. So I think that it’s only natural then to want to study and inhabit that world so that you can have some idea of how we’re supposed to live today.

R: How would you contextualize the American Revolution with everything that’s happening in our current political climate in America? Do you think there are any lessons we could learn from the American Revolution right now?

M.D.: Oh, God. I mean, I don’t even know what is happening right now. I will say that we’re still dealing with most of our original sins. We still have this racial division in the United States of America that goes all the way back to slavery, the Constitution, and the three-fifths compromise. There’s half the country that says, “We need to go back to these Revolutionary principles, and we have to have Tea Party uprisings and we need to talk about how great it is to live by constitutional principles, we need strict constructionist judges.” But then the whole other side, the left, says very naturally, “America was great for land-owning white men, but what about everybody else who lived in the country at the same time?”

So what the Revolution gives to us is this idea of individual rights. That has always run up against the reality that those rights only extended to a very small number of people. To try to cling to what the Revolution was is to basically tell black Americans that they continue to be second-class citizens because that’s the way it’s always been. To go back in time, to take us backward is to start to push away women and African-Americans, and really any non-Anglo, landowning man. There’s so much of today’s political divisions that are still rooted in the Revolution.

The other thing is that everybody, of course, likes to identify with the underdog. There’s a real problem where people can be like, “Oh, well I represent the good, hearty band … I am the people, and we’re going to get together and rise up against tyranny,” except that both sides see themselves as the scrappy underdogs rising up against tyranny, and see the other side as the tyrant. I think that this myth of the Revolution can be adopted by both sides, where the other side then becomes the evil tyrant that then needs to be overthrown. That’s not great, at all.

R: Tell me about The Storm Before the Storm. What made you want to write this book?
M.D.: When I was writing The History of Rome, one of the questions that I got over and over again was, “Is the United States the new Rome?” And, you know, there are some interesting parallels. Rome and America were both founded by, you know, cast-offs and vagabonds. The early inhabitants of Rome were runaway slaves, people who were too poor to make it in other communities. So they moved to Rome, which is a lot like the colonization of the United States. Then you go on, and you have the expulsion of the kings and the founding of the republic, and then you have this rise of regional expansion and national expansion, and then worldwide expansion. And you kind of land at Rome after the Punic Wars, where Rome had emerged as the dominant power in the Mediterranean around 146 B.C., and that corresponds a little bit with where America found itself at the end of the Cold War. We’d gone through World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, and we kind of emerged in the ‘90s as this unipolar hyperpower. We were by far and away the strongest and most dominant country in the world. I started thinking, okay, if that’s roughly where we are historically, let’s dig into what the Romans were facing at the time because that also corresponds to the beginning and the end of the Roman Republic. That triumph (Punic Wars) was one of the initial causes of the erosion of the Republic and its transformation later into being an Empire, into being an autocracy.

I started digging into some of the issues the Romans were dealing with in the 140s, 130s, 120s B.C., and a lot of them are very similar to the things that we’re dealing with. There was economic inequality, elites squabbling with each other, and an increasing polarization. The parallels are not one to one. It’s not like we’re reliving Roman history, but the period that the book is about, which is about 130 to 80 B.C., there’s a lot, I think, that the United States could learn about that period. The Roman experience can teach us what is a good way to handle something and what is a bad way to handle something.

And so hopefully, when people read the book — it’s just a narrative history of 50 years of Roman history — but hopefully when they walk away from it they’ll be like, “Number one, this is unsettling.” The fate of the republic is now officially in our hands. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the fate of the republic is currently in the hands of this generation and probably the next generation, but maybe there is a way to get through this. It’s not like we haven’t been tested before. Maybe we can get through it and still have a republic and not just collapse into a presidential autocracy.

Mike Duncan is an award-winning historical podcaster. His two series’, The History of Rome and Revolutions can be found on iTunes. His first book, The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, is forthcoming from Public Affairs/Hachette Book Group. It is currently available for pre-order, and will be officially released on October 24, 2017.


Cover photo courtesy of Mike Duncan.