A while back, Lucy asked me to come up with a list of books that covered the “behind the scenes” formation of our nation, with the proviso that they be well-written.
That’s a trick on a number of levels, it turns out.
For one thing, there is a reason why most historians do not write best-selling novels, and a lack of good ideas is not that reason.
This was one of the things that made my grad school experience so contentious. For reasons that even now still make me wish I knew how to grind my teeth in three-part harmony, historians as a discipline are just not very interested in good writing. There is a great deal of stress on hitting one’s marks – properly describing the various historiographical debates into which you wish to insert your argument, citing the appropriate sources, and on a more insidious level paying the proper obeisance to the reigning fashions of interpretation (go ahead, ask me about the invasion of history by literary theory some day – that’s an hour of your life you’ll never get back). But there’s not much reward for good writing.
It always seemed to me that the whole point of history is to tell a good story. A story backed up by evidence, certainly – that’s what makes it history and not commentary – but a story nonetheless.
And good storytelling is good writing. But neither of those things were the goal. In fact, what was described as “narrative history” was actively scorned by too many of my peers as beneath the dignity of the discipline, and once again I’m back to grinding my teeth in 4/4 time. No wonder so many Americans remain ignorant about their own past – not enough people are writing it in a way that would make them want to read it. It’s bad enough most Americans can’t conceive of a world prior to their own personal 5th-grade year, but historians should not be making that ignorance easier to sustain.
All of this being a roundabout way to say that finding well-written books is harder than it sounds. There are a few of them out there, but you do have to look.
For another thing, the fact is that I read a lot of those books over the last couple of decades, both the well-written ones and the ones that got by on substance alone.
That’s what you do in graduate school – read in your field. Part of what they want you to do while you’re there is get a solid handle on what everyone else has done so you can build on that without repeating it. The only way to do that is to read it. All of it. A graduate-level seminar requires anywhere from 200 to 500 pages of reading a week, and you generally take two or three of these at a time, plus other coursework, for several years. There are also comprehensive exams. My reading load for those exams – a load which was pretty much in line with everyone else’s, so don’t think I was somehow special – was roughly a book every two days for a solid year.
The first thing I did after my comps was visit the university health care center to make sure that I hadn’t destroyed my health permanently. “No, no,” they told me. “Just get up off your chair more from now on.”
All of this is to say that I ingested an overwhelming amount of information regarding the political culture of the formation of this nation during my time in graduate school, information from a wide variety of sources, information that mulled around in my head and combined and recombined in new and in some cases idiosyncratic ways to produce my own view of things.
So the things I write here are not necessarily the sorts of things I can point to in a book for you to find repeated in the same ways.
Which means, of course, that my graduate training was a success. That was the goal, after all.
And of course I’ve continued to read in my field since then, which only adds to the cacophony.
So pulling a reading list out of that is trickier than it sounds. But it is also fun, because that’s what people like me live for.
I got into this field because I love it. I became a teacher because I had a passion for it and wanted to share that with others. And I am never happier than when people actually want me to do that.
So, here’s a few things for the list:
If you’re looking for good general histories of this period, the kinds of things that give you an overview of most of the important events that are going on during the Founding Era, there are a couple of books to consider.
Probably the best place to start is with The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800, by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, as it provides not only a sweeping narrative of events but also a solid understanding of the ideological forces at work. It is an older work now, dating from the 1990s, but it stands up.
Also, the Oxford History of the United States is currently the best series going in terms of solid, well-written syntheses of historical scholarship aimed at the general reader as well as the professional historian. I’ve read most of the volumes in this series and have been steadfastly impressed by them. Anyone who wants a good scholarly overview of the history of the United States would be strongly advised to explore this series, particularly James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, on the Civil War era, and David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear, on the Depression and WWII.
There are two relevant volumes in this series for the Founding period, only one of which I’ve read. I was impressed enough with Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 to use it as a textbook in my advanced undergraduate course on the colonial period. The most recent Oxford volume is Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. This is high on my to-read list. It has gotten rave reviews from basically everyone of any note who studies this period, and if it is as good as everything else Wood has written I will understand why – Gordon Wood is one of the key historians working on this era and I have yet to find anything he’s written that wasn’t worth the time.
If you are looking for more specific works, then it gets trickier as most of them were written with people like me in mind – professional historians looking for densely argued monographs in very specific issues. Not all, but most.
The arguments over the proper place of classical republicanism versus Lockean liberalism are examples of this. Whether the Revolution, Constitution and early republic were more influenced by the one or the other consumed historians in my field for the better part of thirty years – in part because while liberalism is fairly easy to define neither the historians nor the people they studied ever really came up with a stable, consistent definition of republicanism that everyone could accept – with the final synthesis being a sort of exasperated “yes.” The view I put forth on this blog is my own take, both in terms of definitions and which one was most influential when, based on the primary and secondary sources I’ve read, but here are a few works to consider for those interested:
On the classical republican side, Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is the granddaddy of them all, more or less. Lance Banning’s The Jeffersonian Persuasion followed that up, as did Gordon Wood’s magisterial work, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Wood’s book is breathtaking but not easy reading. All of these are at least thirty years old.
On the liberal side, Joyce Appleby’s Capitalism and a New Social Order, on the politics of the 1790s, was always a favorite of mine, plus it’s short.
One of the best works synthesizing the two sides – again, an older work, and somewhat hard to find now – is Isaac Kramnick’s Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America. Kramnick does a nice job of showing how it wasn’t an either/or proposition.
Gordon Wood’s later book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, also sits in that complex middle and is worth reading, as is Drew McCoy’s The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America.
Sean Wilentz’ The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, carries the story into the 19th century, as does Drew McCoy’s bittersweet The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy – a hymn to the problems of outliving one’s time.
One of the issues that I have always found fascinating is the role of religion in the Founding Era. For general readers, Jon Meacham’s American Gospel is a good place to start. Isaac Kramnick’s The Godless Constitution and Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority serve as useful correctives to the misguided but mysteriously popular notion that the United States is a “Christian nation.”
Don’t even get me started on that.
There are any number of other monographs that come to mind, but instead I’ll end on a fun one – if you’re interested in the day-to-day experiences of what it was like to be a soldier in the American Revolution, you will do no better than Michael Stephenson’s Patriot Battles, which manages to get across a lot of that in a fairly breezy and accessible style.
Luckily for you, there’s no exam at the end of all this.