Notable Winter Books

In her sweeping new account of how the U.S. Constitution came to be ratified in 1788, Pauline Maier, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at MIT, clarifies the year’s heated debates. She samples a broad range of voices—from luminaries such as George Washington to anonymous detractors agitating against the weighty new order—to illuminate the complex rubric of regional history, individual biography, and political strategy that brought the nation to assent. She integrates local conflicts into the larger story of national unification by tracing the spread of arguments from one state to another in an expanding debate, which she argues “served to bind the nation together more tightly” and even reached across gender and class lines “to engross the attention of all classes of people,” as a Maine merchant reported in late 1787. Women made their views known in parlor rooms and dining halls.
Maier’s work demonstrates that the Constitution’s meaning did not emerge fully formed from behind closed doors at Philadelphia, but rather developed over time as citizens of all ranks brought their interpretations of the contentious document into the play of free and energetic debate. (Simon & Schuster, 608 pages, $30)
The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It
Edited by Brooks D. Simpson, Stephen W. Sears, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean
“From the houses then and the workshops, and through all the doorways, Leapt they tumultuous, and lo! Manhattan arming,” wrote Walt Whitman in spring 1861 after watching newly formed Union regiments march off to fight. Whitman’s vivid observations join a chorus of voices that ring out from the first year of the great ordeal in this book of wartime narratives, which contain more than 100 poems, letters, speeches, reports, and documents. (The Library of America plans to publish companion volumes for each year of the war.)
Among the documents: Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis’s official, surprisingly humble resignation speech to the U.S. Congress; Gen. George B. McClellan’s letter to his wife denouncing Lincoln; and a South Carolinian planter’s daughter writing in her diary about the “great and glorious victory gained yesterday at Bull’s Run.” Excerpts also reveal unexpected conflict over how to heal the unraveling nation: a personal letter shows how the recently elected Lincoln tries to maintain the status quo of being unsupportive of abolition, while 67-year-old Texas governor Sam Houston, a hero of the state’s independence movement, risks his countrymen’s wrath to protest secession.
The editors preface each document with a brief introduction, providing valuable context. This volume finds broadly appealing human voices in the country’s single greatest catastrophe—and its ultimate greatest triumph. (Library of America, 840 pages, $37.50)