Looking Less Backward: Ten (Relatively) Recent Books That Anyone Interested In Early American History Should Read

The day after Christmas, The New Republic published a piece by Senior Editor, John J. Judis, entitled “Looking Backward: Ten Books Any Student of American History Must Read.” The piece began promisingly (flatteringly, even): “I woke up on Christmas morning thinking about American historians.” [Editor’s Note: Wouldn’t the world be a better place if more people did that?] Judis closed the opening paragraph with the following caveat: “They’re my favorites; they’re not the best books.” Each book was followed by a paragraph with some combination of a brief synopsis and Judis’s own reactions. I have linked to the article but, just for reference, I’ll list his ten picks here:

  • Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness
  • William McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform
  • Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787
  • Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian
  • Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life
  • Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916
  • Warren Susman, Culture and History
  • Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual
  • William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History
  • Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America

Now, Judis has written about history but he is not an academic and the list makes no claim of being authoritative or comprehensive in any way. As he himself noted, the list is heavy on the Progressive Era as well as religious history. However, one curious aspect of the list is that the most recently published book on the list is from 1988.

What can be gathered from this list about the general reader? Well, I’m not sure anything can. This reminded me of a similar phenomenon that occurred during our March Madness tournament last year. I haven’t gone back and done any quantitative analysis of the 64 books that started the tournament but I remember a number of us being surprised at the weight given to books published before the 1980s in the nominating process. Classics like Morgan’s American Slavery received far more nominations than many recent works. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising since classics are classics for a reason. That said, I think some of us had expectations (based on assumptions made about our readership) that the balance would have tilted the other way toward more recent academic works.

I must admit that I am an early American historiography junkie who has read Hartz (without it being assigned . . . because WHO assigns Louis Hartz?). However, even I couldn’t argue with a straight face that it is a book that “any student of American history must read.” And so I wonder how much of the reaction to Judis’s piece came from the less-than-rigorous way in which he framed the list. So I decided to do my own list and to frame it as “Ten (Relatively) Recent Books That Anyone Interested In Early American History Should Read.” Keep in mind that the reason why I think someone “should read” each of these books is not implicitly because I agree with their arguments but because I think the reader will benefit from being exposed to or engaging with them. My one hard rule was that they are all published after the most recent book in Judis’s list. And I tried but don’t pretend to have achieved some topical balance. So, in no specific order, here they are:

  • Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone – This is valuable to the general reader for its exposure to a narrative of American slavery that does not seem to be widely known among general audiences. It remains just as important for “any students of American history” as when I was assigned this book as an undergraduate and twice as a graduate student.
  • Alan Taylor, American Colonies – For me, this is the best survey yet of the colonial period on a continental scale and general audiences, like some academics, could do with a broadening of their understanding of the term “colonial period.”
  • Richard White, The Middle Ground – Despite the work since that has modified White’s arguments, it’s still one of the best places for a general reader to get an initial sense of Native-European cultural exchange.
  • Gordon Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution – Before the howls begin, there is no arguing that the book is engaging. I have seen undergraduates at both Brooklyn College and Yale become engaged with the book more easily than many other works on the period. Perhaps the most important reason it should be read is that it is easily critiqued by non-specialists.
  • Edmund Morgan, Inventing the People – One of the most underrated books of the last 25 years. Morgan’s studied cynicism skepticism is an excellent antidote to Wood and puts forth an argument that will make many readers uncomfortable. And that is exactly why anyone interested in early American history should read it.
  • Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul – Johnson gets at both the economic mechanics of slavery in the Deep South while focusing on individual lives and it has proven to be an intoxicating combination for both academic and general reader alike.
  • Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale – Ulrich’s book is not only one of the most important books in women’s history in the last 25 years, it is also a model of scholarship and working with primary sources. Therefore, it should give any reader a sense of what it is like to engage with primary sources.
  • Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy – This book does the same thing for secondary sources as Ulrich’s does for primary sources. There is no better book for showing the reader why secondary sources need to be questioned just like primary sources.
  • Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party – Young’s book was important for historiographical reasons but even for a general audience, who seemingly cannot get enough American Revolution in their reading diet, this book provides an alternative view of the experience of the Revolution to the usual wink-and-nod to Joseph Plumb Martin in many popular works on the topic.

Am I missing something? Does a certain book not deserve to be on the list? Is there a better book on a similar topic? Am I wrong about my reasons for why a specific book should be read? What would your list of ten (relatively) recent books that anyone interested in early American history should read look like?

22 responses

  1. I think there are actually more curious aspects to the list – the publication dates, but also the fact that not a single book was written by a woman or about women’s/gender history. Though perhaps this isn’t surprising for a non-academic list.

    • Absolutely. I didn’t say it was the only or the most curious aspect. I wrote about this one because it reminded me of the way our March Madness nominating process had played out, with their being far less more recent books than had been expected.

  2. I’m curious to what Junto writers / readers think belongs in the following bucket: what are the books EVERYONE who considers themselves knowledgeable about early American history must have read?

    Not your favorites – just the ones that you feel are essential to being knowledgeable about the period REGARDLESS of focus, e.g. religion, slavery, minorities, native Americans, etc.

    I.e. you’re not really knowledgeable about early American history if you haven’t read…

  3. I’m not sure what Judis’s list says about the general reader since I don’t think he is a very good representation of that group. Considering that he has published a biography of Buckley and a historical polemic about Wilsonianism, Judis is very much a public intellectual. He has also has a philosophy MA, so Judis is a member of the academic club.

    This accounts for some of the “positive” idiosyncrasies in the list – would most general readers include the Sklar or Rogin books? What makes the list most interesting (in a sad way) is, as Laura and Whitney note above, that not one of the books focuses on the history of women or gender. The closest might be McLoughlin on reform, but that is damning with faint praise.

    Judis has clearly read and thought a lot about the impact of capitalism (not surprising from an ex-socialist intellectual) and race on American history but not gender. Nothing on gender in his reading in research from the late sixties to the present was striking or impactful enough to make the list? That’s depressing on several fronts.

    Now, the biggest problem with the list is that it was sold not only as a list of the works on American history that most impacted Judis thinking but also as “Ten Books Any Student of American History Must Read.” I think most Junto readers will agree that as the latter the list is a failure.

    • Right, the problem here was less the list (which, after all, was a personal list) but the framing of the list. It’s one thing to make a list of books that have been important to you (had I done that, it would’ve looked different than the list I eventually came up with). But it’s another to frame it the way he did. The framing was the problem. Yes, there’s no gender history, but it’s not a personal failing if a book on gender history is not one of the ten books that have influenced them most. It is a problem though if you frame the list the way he had. Same with the lack of female authors on the list. Then again, that his reading seems to have stopped in 1988, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the omissions. Also I should mention that my two honorable mentions would have went to Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives and Dan Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country.

  4. Just a few (from a non-specialist reader):

    Tyler Anbinder, Five Points
    Fred Anderson, Crucible of War
    Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898
    Patricia Cline Cohen: The Murder of Helen Jewett
    Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown
    A. W. Lee, A Shoemaker’s Story
    Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town
    Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten

  5. Many may disagree with me but if you are developing a list of books that those interested in EAH should read or books that one must have read to be considered knowledgeable on the subject shouldn’t more sweeping political histories be on the list? I understand the importance of and trend towards social, ecological, cultural histories particularly those focused towards minority groups as well as works focusing on a narrow subject. I attended a conservative Southern university more known for football than academics in the early 2000’s and even in my freshman level american history courses we were assigned and discussed these books rather studying the political history. In my humble opinion there is something off with a person reading a Midwife’s Tale if they lack a depth of knowledge in regards to the political themes of the period. I find this to be the case more often that one would suppose.

    • Keep in mind that these are not the “top 10” books or “the 10 most important books” someone interested in early American history should read. Or the “10 books someone considered knowledgeable must have read.” Also keep in mind that the rule was that all books had to be published after 1988. Those would be quite different lists. Also, when I say someone interested in early American history, I assumed it would be someone who was already interested, had probably read political narratives of the period already, and, perhaps, wanted to move beyond that into more “recent” (and accessible) academic works.

  6. If you run the tourney again this year and I certainly hope you do as the last one was outstanding, set a date for publication such as 2001 or after. I think that would make a very interesting tourney.

  7. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all history is local. My undergraduate major was American history, but it was not until 30 years later that I discovered my colonial Virginia roots. Genealogy is addictive; it leads to further study not just of family history, but of history in general.

    A couple nominations for what I would call “History Books My Kids Should Read When They Want To Know More About Their Ancestry:”

    Martin’s Hundred, by Ivor Noel-Hume (1982). Not just because the author’s wit shines from every page, but because we should remember there is no bright line dividing archeology and history.

    Born Fighting, by (now Senator) James Webb (2004). There are other good books about the Scots-Irish in America, but this one makes it easier to see the links from Augusta County, Virginia of 270 years ago, when my McClanahan ancestor was sheriff of an area that extended as far west as Illinois; and the politics of today.

  8. Re: Morgan’s Inventing the People–I don’t know precisely what you mean by “cynical.” However, I feel I must share part of an email I received from Prof. Morgan in 2006. At the time, I was still a doctoral student working out my ideas on popular sovereignty for my dissertation. I emailed him about his interpretation in Inventing the People, wondering if there was more of an engagement with his ideas than I had been able to find (you are right to say this book is under appreciated). Morgan responded (on 9/7/06):

    “As for any academic dialogue about the thesis of Inventing the People, it’s not going to happen. I regard it as my most important book, but nobody else does. None of the reviews understood what I was trying to say–they all thought it was antidemocratic–though that was not my intent. On rereading parts of it today, I don’t see how they missed the point, but I clearly failed to get my ideas across. I wish you greater success.

    Yours sincerely, Edmund S. Morgan”

    How does his response mesh with your “cynical” comment?

    [You can see how I have engaged with some of what Morgan had to say in my book (forthcoming from Cornell UPress this fall), The Making of Mr. President: Washington, the People & the Title Controversy of 1789.]

    • I did not mean “cynicism” in a negative way. Now that you point it out, I can see there was probably a better word choice for what I was trying to get across. I think “skepticism” may have been closer to what I was trying to say. It was a skepticism toward the way historians had for the past two decades treated and understood popular sovereignty and which allowed him to get behind the concept to its structural tangibility. Thanks for sharing the email, Kate.

      • Iconoclastic would be a good word, too. I am going to reread INVENTING THE PEOPLE because of this fine discussion.

        As for books by women published post-2000, here are four examples that I deem to be must-read books:


        * Pauline Maier, RATIFICATION: THE PEOPLE DEBATE THE CONSTITUTION, 1787-1788 (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

        * Annette Gordon-Reed, THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: AN AMERICAN FAMILY (W. W. Norton, 2008).

        * Rosemarie Zagarri, REVOLUTIONARY BACKLASH: WOMEN AND POLITICS IN THE EARLY AMERICAN REPUBLIC (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

        • oops — I just saw my post below this latest one. I should clarify that this list is deliberately limited to books published in 2001 or thereafter.

  9. I’m biased, but there are a few books by great historians who are women that ought to be on such a list:

    * Pauline Maier, AMERICAN SCRIPTURE: MAKING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (Knopf, 1997, corrected Vintage paperback ed., 1998).
    * Pauline Maier, RATIFICATION: THE PEOPLE DEBATE THE CONSTITUTION, 1787-1788 (Simon and Schuster, 2010, pbk 2011).

    These amazing books are models of how to write political history that takes account of ideas and that also approaches the subject interactively, showing interactions between elite founding guys and the great body of the people, who also turn out to have far more substantive as well as political agency than one might think. And, for sheer writing, wow, just wow.

    * Joanne B. Freeman, AFFAIRS OF HONOR: NATIONAL POLITICS IN THE NEW REPUBLIC (Yale University Press 2001; pbk 2002).

    This book has really influenced my approach to writing history, both by highlighting the need to take seriously what people in the past are trying to say and by heeding the possibility that words and deeds that don’t make sense to us made sense to those who said/wrote or committed them.

    • Absolutely, Richard. All three of those books are just as important to read as any in the list above. I tried to get some kind of topical spread and I basically included books which seemed to have very broad consensus among the graduate students I know. Admittedly, as a political historian myself, those three books are more important to me than some in the list above.

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