My Favorite Books from 2016; or, a Christmas Book List for Your Early American History Nerd Friends

2016 sucked in a lot of ways. Future historians will likely give lots of attention to this year and its events, and not with a positive assessment. But while we cope with this new reality, we at least can console ourselves with the fact that it was an excellent year in historical scholarship, especially in the field of early America. This post is a sequel to my Christmas Book List I posted last year, and may very well become an annual tradition. Below you’ll find some of my favorite books from the past twelve months.


Just a few of my favorite books from the past year.

However, I should quickly add, these were far from the only excellent volumes to be released. (Like I said: it was a very strong year.) These books reflect my own interests and background. I hope others will share their favorite books, whether mentioned or not, in the comments.

taylorThis was the year of sweeping surveys–big books that challenge traditional and entrenched narratives. (They should also encourage us to revise a lot of our survey textbooks.) Two of these texts are follow-ups, in a way, to Alan Taylor’s classic American Colonies (Penguin, 2001), which was the first of Penguin’s survey series and set a new barrier for inclusivity and exhaustiveness. The first of these new surveys, Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (Norton), is not part of the Penguin series, but it is a fitting and worthy sequel to Taylor’s previous volume, and is now the standard overview of the period. (I wrote about the “continental history” approach it invokes here.) And following up Taylor’s work in the Penguin series, Steven Hahn’s A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (Penguin) is equally expansive and incisive. (See a recent overview in NYT here.) Though only half of Hahn’s work deals with the pre-Reconstruction period, his imperial context is indicative of where scholarship of the nineteenth century has gone in the past generation.

stampedBut the Year of the Surveys dealt with more than just chronological periods. We also received more thematic, though equally broad, overviews with Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (Viking) on class (see my review here), Sean Wilentz’s The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics (Norton) on politics, James T. Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford University Press) on democracy, and Ibram X. Kendi’s award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books) on race. Each of these books, though extending outside the chronological scope of early America, offer sweeping new perspectives of important issues. They are also well-written and directed at a general audience. While they are all too big to assign in an undergraduate class, I plan to assign particular chapters when they fill a need.

wintererThe George Washington Book Award committee has a tough decision on their hands. Besides Taylor’s book mentioned above, and Parkinson’s, Dun’s, and Gordon-Reed/Onuf’s books mentioned below, this was a good year for scholarship on America’s revolutionary era. As I said in a previous review, Steve Pincus’s The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (Yale University Press) is a provocative and revisionist account of the political debates that led to the Revolution that is sure to spark debate. American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason (Yale University Press), by Caroline Winterer, offers an exhaustive overview of the intellectual transformations that took place throughout the eighteenth century, and replaces Henry May’s classic book on the topic. (See my review here.) And Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (Liveright) places the half-century following independence within the context of continental revolutions. If these books are any indication, the Atlantic context for the American Revolutionary period is only becoming more popular.

anishanslinMore than politics and ideas, we also received a number of books that reconstruct the lived realities of early America. For the early eighteenth century, Ann M. Little’s The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press) offers a microhistory of boundary crossing, cultural contact, religious evolution, and gendered expectations. (In many ways, it reminded me of John Demos’s classic Unredeemed Captive.) Focusing on goods, Zara Anishanslin’s Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press) gives us an Atlantic history much more grounded in lived realities: commerce, crossings, and imperial networking. Relatedly, Catherine E. Kelly’s Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press) takes a broader view of aesthetics and taste. Both books demonstrate material history at its best. And for the revolutionary era, Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (Norton) puts flesh on the bones of imperial conflict in a compellingly-written and engaging narrative. 

parkinsonFew years go by without new and innovative takes on slavery, and 2016 was not an exception.Wendy Warren’s New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (Liveright) highlights how involved the northeastern colonies were with the origins of the slave institution. Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale University Press) is the survey of abolitionism that we have long needed. And while historians have long noted and identified the central role of slavery to the American Revolution, nobody has done so in such an exhaustive and compelling way as Robert G. Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press). Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press), which I reviewed here, is one of the most incisive contributions to the politics of slavery in quite some time. Speaking of slavery’s politics, Matthew Mason’s Apostle of Union: A Political Biography of Edward Everett (University of North Carolina Press) offers an important account of one of its foremost foes. And finally, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman’s edited collection, Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of Economic Development (University of Pennsylvania Press), exemplifies the recent developments in an ever-growing field.

guyattBeyond explicit treatments of slavery, there were also nuanced engagements with race. Nicholas Guyatt’s Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic Books) examines the troubled legacies of enlightenment thought with regard to racial integration; his coupling of colonization and Indian removal is a much-needed historiographical intervention. James Alexander Dun’s Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press) continues a recent push to better understand Haiti’s role in America’s young republic, which had a deep impact in both politics and slavery. And just when you thought nothing new could be said about Thomas Jefferson, Annette Gordon Reed and Peter Onuf’s intellectual biography, “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (Liveright), manages to do so. If you have friends who love Founders history, this is the book of choice.

hintonAnd finally, if your history nerd friend has interests outside of early America, or if you (like me) have eclectic interests past the post-Civil War period, there are certainly some books that fill that need as well. Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation (Princeton University Press) is a riveting, entertaining, and thoughtful overview of the challenges to the Protestant majority during the late-nineteenth century. (I reviewed it here.) Judith Weisenfeld wrote a fabulous overview of African American religious developments in mid-twentieth century in New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York University Press). Darren E. Grem’s The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (Oxford University Press) is an incisive overview examination of Protestantism’s increasing (and disheartening) involvement with modern capitalism. If you’re into religious studies, Robert Orsi’s new History and Presence (Harvard University Press) promises to raise new questions about how we frame our religious past. Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press), which looks at oppressive federal, state, and local policies, seems all the more relevant in an Age of Trump. Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth (Knopf) is fabulous story-telling that, as I wrote previously, would work well in an undergraduate classroom. And if you have any interested in Mormon history, boy do I have a list for you

Even if the world is crumbling around us, at least we have good books to keep us company. Order now, either for yourself or your loved ones!

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Reading Race in Early America « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Historical Highlights #069


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