The Young Republic 1787 To 1860

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This is not a book for everyone. I once found it a hard sell to a group of students (many in ROTC) who preferred old-style blood-and-guts histories of war or explorations. (On the other hand, A Midwife’s Tale tells the story of an ax murder that could make even strident opponents of handguns rethink their position.) One student, however, got the point. It was, he said, as if previous pictures of life in the past were a photograph torn through the middle so only the men’s faces remained. Ulrich managed to restore the missing half, putting the women back in and making the picture—or history—complete.

The Lewis and Clark Journals: An American Epic of Discovery

edited by Gary E. Moulton (2003; University of Nebraska). The journals of Lewis and Clark are, to my mind, more fun to read than books on the explorers’ famous expedition across the North American continent. This abridgment by Gary Moulton, who edited the 13-volume Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (published between 1983 and 2001), is now the preferred short version of the journal and replaces an older one by Bernard DeVoto.

There are, however, books that help pull together the stories in the journals. For example, James P. Ronda’s Lewis and Clark Among the Indians emphasizes the explorers’ contacts with the Indians—including Mandans, Shoshonis, and Nez Percés—who ruled the West and whose future was anything but clear in 1806, when Lewis and Clark went home.

Democracy in America

by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835; many editions). Tocqueville’s classic description and analysis of American democracy as both a political and social system remains intriguingly insightful and endlessly quotable. The best translations are still that of Henry Reeve, later revised by Francis Bowen and again by Phillips Bradley, and a more modern but somewhat chatty one by George Lawrence. There is a great deal written on Tocqueville, but for a secondary account I keep going back to George Wilson Pierson’s Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, originally published in 1938 and reissued in 1996 by Johns Hopkins University Press (with “and Beaumont” excised from the title).

To be honest, however, reading both volumes of Democracy in America would be trying. Other travelers left more concrete, less philosophical, and sometimes less positive descriptions of the country that can hold readers’ attention more firmly than Tocqueville’s ruminations. Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) and Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation (1842) were re-published—by Penguin and the Modern Library—in 1997 and 1996, respectively. Both books caused sensations in their time. Americans haven’t liked being criticized, then or now. But then who does?

The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840

by Richard Hofstadter (1969; University of California). Hofstadter’s examination of the period’s greatest unanticipated political achievement is still worth reading. Later studies suggest that the party system of Martin Van Buren was less modern than Hofstadter says, but that refines without discrediting this account of how political parties developed legitimacy in the United States and why they’re good, a point too easily forgotten. On the period’s expansion of the electorate, Alexander Keyssar’s The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States is the book to read.

Parties were only one of a large number of institutions that began in the early nineteenth century. Americans of the time proposed and often established one device after another for the betterment of mankind, including prisons, asylums of various sorts, and public schools. Several of those movements are described clearly and succinctly by Ronald G. Walters in American Reformers, 1815–1860 . But to see how quickly dreams of redemption produced a peculiarly horrible American prison system, read David J. Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic.

Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change