The Young Republic 1787 To 1860


The assignment—to select 10 books suitable for a lay reader that cover American history between the Constitution and the 1850s—sounds easier than it is. There are tens of thousands of books on the period, which saw massive economic, social, and political change, an extension of the United States from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and a series of crises leading to the Civil War. Clearly my list will have to be idiosyncratic, favoring titles that I have read and loved, that seemed to work well with my students, or that my friends and colleagues praise.

Over the years, moreover, I have come to suspect that comprehensiveness is a recipe for dullness: looking closely at parts of the past is often a better way to understand it than trying to master the whole story. I also prefer accounts from the time over books by historians because they speak more directly to the mind and inspire the imagination. But putting minihistories in context and interpreting documents requires some knowledge of the period, which gets back to the comprehensiveness problem.

After reflecting on these considerations, I came to one conclusion: I would have to cheat and suggest some alternatives to my “big 10.”

Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Reported by James Madison

with an introduction by Adrienne Koch (1984; Norton). There’s no better way to understand the Constitution as originally conceived than by reading James Madison’s remarkably full “notes” of the convention debates. To a reader willing to take the trouble, there’s real satisfaction in seeing how the convention moved, oh so slowly, from the Virginia Plan to the very different proposal it sent the country for ratification. The delegates were the best and the brightest of their time, and their debates ranged beyond nitty-gritty institutional issues to the morality of slavery, the nature of the country’s needs, and its future. Franklin’s closing speech, asking any delegate unhappy with the Constitution to “doubt a little of his own Infallibility,” has to be among the wisest pieces of advice that that wise man left his countrymen.

This said, Madison’s notes are not easy bedtime reading. Just figuring out what’s going on can be a challenge since the convention didn’t proceed in a linear fashion, finishing up the legislative branch, for example, before designing the executive. Instead it kept returning to issues, changing and refining earlier decisions. Keeping speakers straight can also be a problem for readers who recognize only a handful of names from the period. As a result, there’s good reason to prefer books about the convention. I particularly like Carl Van Doren’s The Great Rehearsal: The Story of the Making and Ratifying of the Constitution of the United States . Although the opening parts are dated, the book itself is solid, informative, and engaging.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

by Joseph J. Ellis (2000; Knopf). This book consists of essays on six crucial moments in the first decades of the new nation that reveal interactions among prominent members of the founding generation—Hamilton, Burr, Franklin, Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and both John and Abigail Adams. It was long on the bestseller list and won the Pulitzer Prize in history for all the right reasons: Founding Brothers is a work of solid scholarship, full of insight, and written with a style leavened by Ellis’s unintrusive sense of humor. I first turned to the chapter on the Adams-Jefferson correspondence with a brazen “show me something I don’t know” attitude. Within minutes Ellis had me laughing out loud at Abigail’s tongue-lashing of Jefferson.

You’ve already read Founding Brothers and want something else on the same period? Ellis’s American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson is studded with unconventional insight (although its conclusion that Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemings’s children, written before the DNA evidence came out, casts some doubt on his reading of Jefferson’s character). His Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams remains, however, my favorite. It captures the endearingly crusty Adams in ways that are missing even in David McCullough’s massive John Adams.

Or for something altogether different, read the first six chapters of Henry Adams’s History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison . Nobody has ever written a more graphic and affecting description of the United States as it was in 1800.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990; Knopf). Ulrich’s study of a midwife on the Maine frontier is a mini-history par excellence. The chapters begin with selections from Ballard’s diary that sometimes border on the incomprehensible. From these, with meticulous research, Ulrich teased out a compelling story of everyday life and made a passionate case for the importance of women’s traditional role in weaving together the strands of community life.