American history in broad strokes

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A comment below inquired about “good books” on American history. Unfortunately I don’t know as much about American history as I do about Roman or Chinese history. But over the years there have been several books which I find to have been very value-add in terms of understanding where we are now. In other words, these are works which operate with a broader theoretical framework, and aren’t just a telescope putting a spotlight on a sequence of facts.

- Albion’s Seed. I read this in 2004, and it was a page turner.

- The Cousins’ Wars. I had thought of Kevin Phillips as a political writer, but this was a very engaging and deep cultural history. My prejudice resulted in my not reading this until 2009.

- What Hath God Wrought. This book focuses on the resistance of the Whigs and Greater New England to the cultural ascendancy of the Democrats and their “big-tent” coalition which included most of the South, the Mid-Atlantic, and much of the “Lower North” (e.g., the “butternut” regions of the Midwest settled from the Border South).

- The Rise of American Democracy. This is a good compliment to the previous book, in that it takes the “other side,” that of the Democrats. In many ways this is the heir to Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson.

- Throes of Democracy. A somewhat “chattier” book than the previous ones, it is still an informative read. It covers a period of history with the Civil War as its hinge, and so gives one the tail end of the Age of Sectionalism.

- Freedom Just Around the Corner. By the same author, but covering a period of history overlapping more with Albion’s Seed.

- The Age of Lincoln. This is not a “Civil War book.” It is of broader scope, though since the the war is right in the middle of the period which the book covers it gets some treatment. I’d judge this the “easiest” read so far of the list.

- Replenishing the Earth. This is about the Anglo world more generally, but it is nice to plug in America into a more general framework. North America is not sui generis.

- The English Civil War. This is obviously not focused on America, but it is a nice complement to Albion’s Seed, as it shows the very deep roots of the division between two of America’s folkways. The Cousins’ Wars serves as a bridge between the two, shifting as it does between both shores of the Atlantic.

I’m game for recommendations! I had a relatively traditional education in American history, and did very well in my advanced courses, but I knew very little before I read books like this.


  1. I believe that “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation,” written by Jon Meacham, is worth reading.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Razib Khan, gene expression. gene expression said: American history in broad strokes: A comment below inquired about “good books” on American history. Unfortunatel… [...]

  3. Great list! I’m just finishing “Albion’s Seed” right now and read “The Cousins’ Wars” a couple of years ago — both do exactly what you say they do: “operate with a broader theoretical framework, and aren’t just a telescope putting a spotlight on a sequence of facts.”

    Next up for me is “Battle Cry of Freedom” which many consider the best one volume work on the Civil War ever written (it is also part of Oxford’s series on American History, which include “What Hath God Wrought”).

    Looking over your list again, it seems like you need a good book or two focused more on the Revolution. I know you want a theoretical framework, but I don’t think you should ignore the great Founders and their thinking/writing. So for example, a book like “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis would be a good addition to get a sense of some of those key players and their ideas.

    Also, I know it is sort of cliched at this point for a conservative like me to reference Tocqueville, but it is amazing how well “Democracy in America” holds up, especially for its theoretical framework.

  4. Take a look at:

    Kirkpatrick Sale, Power Shift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment. New York: Random House, 1975.

    Carl Oglesby, The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976.

  5. “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” by Bernard Bailyn is an outstanding classic.

  6. I just started the first volume of geographer DW Meinig’s “The Shaping of America” series. Check it out.

  7. Biography, regional studies, and literature are indispensable for getting a feel for texture and complexity of American history. Here are a few books from those fields that I found to be outstanding.

    Harrite Beecher Stowe’s “Poganuc People” for life in Puritan New England.

    Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson together with Franklin’s writings in New America edition to get a feel for his America.

    American Sphinx for Thomas Jefferson

    Friedman’s 5 volume biography of Washington — sorry, doesn’t seem to be anything shorter that gets his character across, and with him character was everything.

    There is no single outstanding biography of Lincoln, unfortunately, but you get great insights from Edmund Wilson’s biographical sketch in his Patriotic Gore, plus leads on lots of other gems in American literature of the period.

    Lincoln’s law partner’s oral history of Lincoln’s friends

    The first volume of Beveridge’s biography of Lincoln gives good descriptions of what life was really like on the American frontier during that period.

    Sandburg’s 6 volume biography of Lincoln has tons of material on Lincoln and his times. The best part is you get to be your own editor.

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not to be missed — one of the great novels in American history.

    Olmstead’s “Cotton Kingdom” for a journalistic account of life in the South right before the Civil War

    The Civil War series on public television is indispensible for the war itself.

    Moving south, Remini’s one volume paperback condensation of his biography of Jackson has all the essential facts and tells a great story.

    Flush Times in Alabama is a hilarious collection of satires and tall tales about life on the Alabama frontier by a Virginia gentlemen eyewitness with literary talent.

    Cash’s Mind of the South is THE book about the South by a literary genius.

    For the 20th century, the first two volumes of Geoffrey C. Ward’s biography of Roosevelt is by far the best of the best.

    Francis Perkins oral history online at Columbia University is a funny, fastastic inside story of the first half of the century. I especially like her accounts of her early history and times spend with Governors Smith and Roosevelt in Albany and beginning of the New Deal.

    All of the above are chosen for their good writing as well as informational qualities, culled from a lot of second-rate work.

  8. For Texas, I can really recommend J.R. Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star,” which chronicles Texas colonization through major ethnic groups: Anglo-Celtic, Germans, Amerinds and Spaniards.

  9. Right now I’m devouring Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood and Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Wood is the dean of Revolutionary Era historians, but Chernow is the best and most thorough on his narrower topic. Indeed, Chernow’s “Washington” is a book I just finished and although it’s 900 pages, Chernow is the first historian to really make George W. come alive, and Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker compared it to a Victorian novel, like Jane Austen, the depth and rich detail of the family and friends and companions in war and peace are so inextricably intertwined with GW. Ellis’s Founding Brothers is very good and of course, Albion’s Seed and everything else by David Hackett Fischer is wonderful. Ditto for The Cousin’s War and another great book on the French & Indian War with the word “Clash…” that late night doesn’t let me call to mind.

    I’ve read almost everything on Lincoln and Battle Cry of Freedom is the best on the Civil War. Meacham’s book was weak on the Great Awakenings, which What Has God Wrought fleshes out the Second GW in Upstate NY and elsewhere in the early 1800s quite well. David McCollough is splendid with his bios and Gaddis and Dallek the two best on the twentieth century in all its aspects.

    It’s 3AM and I can’t remember the alternative take on the Great Depression by Amity Schlaes, but she debunks much of the standard Dem hagiography of FDR.

    As for writing skills and evocation of a time and a personality, I consider Chernow & McCollough & David Hackett Fischer win, place & show on the race for the best books.

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