Suggested Readings in American History

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One of the great pleasures of being a student of history is that so many historians are superb writers. The word history comes from the Latin historia, which means story. My family name comes from the Swedish word for historian or story teller--the same root as our word saga. History is indeed a story, much more than a collection of dates, names and disassociated facts. If you can remember the plot of your favorite movie, you can learn history.

Students have suggested that I post an American history reading list. These books, many of which I have discussed in my classes, have been among my favorites and ones which students, colleagues, and friends have enjoyed. These titles are not all necessarily about history, but sooner or later everything becomes part of history, doesn't it? This list represents only a tiny portion of what is available for the student of history.

Page Smith. A People's History of the United States. Smith has always been one of my favorite historians. His “People's History” has a separate title for each volume—8 in all. It is the only full length history of the U.S. written in the 20th century. It began with A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution. It took Smith three volumes to get through that (to about 1800) and his publisher persuaded him to “finish the job.” He did, and we can be grateful.

Fred Anderson. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 is a brilliant reexamination of the great conflict that preceded the American Revolution. Anderson's thesis is that after the Seven Years' War, the American Revolution was all but inevitable. He makes a very interesting case—a great read.

Washington: The Indispensable Man by by James Thomas Flexner is a condensed version of his monumental 4-volume biography of Washington and is often considered the finest biography of the father of our country.

Joseph J. Ellis is a fine historian of early America. At a recent William & Mary graduation he delivered the commencement address as Thomas Jefferson. My guess is he is also a great teacher. Here are four of his books:

  • Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. I couldn't resist the title. 
  • Ellis's biography of Jefferson, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, is also very fine.
  • Ellis has another new book called Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which has been highly praised—a new look at some already famous Americans.
  • His Excellency George Washington. A fresh look at the father of our nation.

David McCullough's biography, John Adams, is a masterpiece. He started out to write a dual biography of Adams and Jefferson, but Adams was so intriguing he decided to stick with him. As a matter of fact he wound up writing a dual biography after all—for much of it is the love story of John and Abigail Adams, a remarkably brilliant woman and political thinker in her own right. McCullough's latest is 1776. (Recently HBO produced a very fine series, John Adams, based on McCullough's book. Laura Linney's portrayal of Abigail is superb.)

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Bernard A. Weisberger. America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800 is a wonderful story of America's first decade under the Constitution, a period which might have ended in a breakup of the Union or even Civil War if that election had turned out differently. Those were exciting but very dangerous times.

A fine novel about that era is David Nevin's 1812: A Novel, a gripping story about that all-but-forgotten war that contains enlightening portraits of significant women like Dolley Madison and Rachel Jackson, whose roles in their husbands' live deserve more attention than they have received.

Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America. Certainly the greatest book ever written by a foreigner about the United States.

Robert Remini is a leading historian of the Jacksonian period and has written three fine biographies of the major players: Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, as well as other monographs on topics from that period.

Jean Edward Smith's John Marshall: Definer of a Nation is a beautifully written biography of the man I consider to be America's most unappreciated historic figure. As America's fourth and greatest Chief Justice, Marshall did as much to shape the nation as any of the founding fathers.

H.W. Brands, another of my favorite historians, has an excallent biography, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. Read it together with David McCullough's biography of John Adams and you will have a fine sense of what the American revolution was all about.

Civil War History. Some wise guy once remarked that the real winner of the Civil War was the American Booksellers' Association, and with reason: The amount of published (and unpublished) material is overwhelming. The outpouring began in 1961—the Centennial year, and has never let up. The Civil War has indeed generated more writing than any other event in American history, and it would be foolish to try to list even a representative number of titles except for those below. Yet like other events in America's past, the Civil War is constantly being reinterpreted. For example, a recent biography by Jean Edward Smith takes a fresh look at Grant—the title of his work.

The best single volume history of the Civil War is probably James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which won a Pulitzer and became a bestseller. McPherson's personal recommendation for the best multi-volume history is Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative, an extremely detailed and readable account by a fine writer. See also McPherson's Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction.

Confederate heroes have earned their share of biographies. Emory M. Thomas's Robert E. Lee: A Biography is one of the best. Douglas Southall Freeman's Lee and Lee's Lieutenants are long-standing major works which should be read together with later studies.

Of all the studies of Confederate generals, James I. Robertson's Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend is a standout, as is Robertson's General A.P. Hill: The Story of a Confederate Warrior.

Lee's other most famous lieutenant is treated in Jeffry D. Wert's General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier: A Biography. Lee's cavalry chief is also the subject of multiple works, among them Emory M. Thomas's Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart.

General and later President Grant also wrote his own Memoirs, generally considered to be the finest written by any American president. They were published by Mark Twain, who greatly admired Grant.

Another Union general whose performance in the Civil War draws endless commentary is General George B. McClellan, perhaps the best organizer, trainer and logistician on either side in the war. His achievements were painfully short of battlefield success. A good biography is Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon.

The Civil War has indeed generated more writing than any other event in American history, and it would be foolish to try to list even a representative number of titles except for those above. Yet like other events in America's past, the Civil War is constantly being reinterpreted. For example, a recent biography by Jean Edward Smith takes a fresh look at Grant—the title of his work.

Some might call General William T. Sherman Grant's partner in crime—others regard along with Grant as savior of the Union. What is clear is that Sherman was a controversial figure whose impact not only on the Civil War, but on the future of warfare, was profound. He also wrote his Memoirs and he has engendered several biographies, both admiring and critical. Joseph T. Glatthaar's The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman's Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns has been generally well received.

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln. Professor Donald said that in writing this book he tried to forget everything he had ever read about Lincoln which was written after Lincoln's death, and stuck to original sources, the exception being the writings of Lincoln's Secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay.

Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels is one of the finest books ever written about war—although a novel its history is valid to all but the pickiest critics. The book was made into the film "Gettysburg."

Don't overlook Volume V of Page Smith's series: Trial by Fire: A People's History of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

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