I often have a goal to write a substantive post that addresses crucial historiographical topics. I really do. But then, I’m also lazy. Further, I love book lists. So let me put on my salesman’s voice and offer a gift guide for all of you who are searching for books for your overspecialized-early-American-history-nerd-friends. These are, in other words, some of my favorite books from the past twelve months in early American history.
Hopefully your friend is into Atlantic history, because we are all truly Atlanticists now. For instance, Janet Polasky wrote a wonderful book, Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (Yale University Press), which looks at interconnections between nations during the Age of Revolutions. If political ideas aren’t your friends’ forté, then you can buy Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s excellent Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolutions (Harvard University Press), which looks at how these new revolutionary realities affected people on-the-ground—or, at least, on-the-waters. If, on the other hand, religious is your interest, then Sarah Crabtree’s Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution (University of Chicago Press) is a fantastic choice. A more variety of perspectives are found in Eliga Gould’s and Peter Onuf’s edited collection, Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World (Johns Hopkins University Press). So if you can’t tour the Atlantic world on a cruise over the break, these books are the next best thing!
If your history-nerd friend isn’t so over-specialized that they have an academic appointment, then chances are they are mostly interested in America’s founding and founders. Well this is a great year to introduce them to work that will help nuance and contextualize traditional views! Kathleen DuVal’s absolutely exquisite Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (Random House) looks at how the Revolution affected people of British, Spanish, and Native backgrounds on the Gulf Coast through a series of case studies; it might be the most novel look at the war in quite some time, and is written in a way that should reach a broad audience—I think it should work quite well in the undergraduate classroom. If you are looking for something on the Constitution, Mary Sarah Bilder’s Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Harvard University Press) is a painstaking look at the document so crucial to understanding the Constitutional Convention, and Carol Berkin’s The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties (Simon & Schuster) is a readable summary of the debates that followed the introduction of the Constitution. And if they just want some good ol’ focus on The Founds, you can get Richard Bernstein’s The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), which is an efficient and responsible overview of the topic, and Carla Mulford’s Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire (Oxford University Press) remarkably says something new about the man who has been the focus of so much work already.
The field of slavery and African American history always produces novel and informative work, and 2015 was no different. For instance, we received works from pillars in the field, like Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground History (W. W. Norton) and Ira Berlin’s The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States (Harvard University Press), the latter of which is an efficient condensation of Berlin’s work that is suitable for the classroom. And I absolutely loved John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd’s Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of America’s Most Photographed American (Liverlight), which merged the fascinating topics of Douglass and photography. (And the book is pretty, to boot!)
A few more odds and ends. For the early American republic, I really enjoyed Sam Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford University Press), Gregory Dowd’s Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier (Johns Hopkins University Press), and Brian Phillips Murphy’s Building the Empire State: Political Economy in the Early Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press). And for the Civil War-era, some of my favorites included Adam Rothman’s Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Harvard University Press), Martha Hodes’s Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press), and Gregory Downs’s After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Harvard University Press).
Now, if your history friend has interests outside of early America, there are plenty of options. For your friendly grad student or early career academic, you should get them Karen Kelsky’s The Professor is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD into a Job (Three Rivers Press). If s/he is into political history, Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books), Andrew Burnstein’s Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All While Being Dead (University of Virginia Press), David Sehat’s The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and our Politics Inflexible (Simon and Schuster), and Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press) are all fabulous and would make great gifts. But make sure they are caught up on the early American history books first!