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.”
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
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:
You’ve already read
Or for something altogether different, read the first six chapters of Henry Adams’s
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.
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,
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
There are, however, books that help pull together the stories in the journals. For example, James P. Ronda’s
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
To be honest, however, reading both volumes of
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
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
by Merritt Roe Smith (1977; Cornell). This book, by an MIT colleague, offers an unconventional perspective on American industrialization and its human impact. Interchangeable parts were not invented by Eli Whitney, although somehow that myth goes on and on. The idea began, like so many “American” innovations, in Europe, in this case France, and was developed in the United States under government sponsorship at federal armories, particularly the armory at Harpers Ferry, now West Virginia (the site of John Brown’s famous raid). The reason was simple: The Army would benefit enormously if it could repair broken guns with parts from other broken guns.
The ingenious machinery created to make firearms with interchangeable parts had, Smith argues, wide applications in other forms of manufacturing—of bicycles and sewing machines, for example. The new ways of manufacturing also required a disciplined way of working resisted by workers accustomed to the more relaxed routines of craft production. A final comparison of Harpers Ferry with the contemporary federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, raises broad questions about the impact of culture on work habits and an openness toward change.
A book whose illustrations include the parts of a rifle and a milling machine won’t appeal to everyone. And, whatever historians of technology like Smith say, some will suspect that innovations in textile manufacturing were more important than those in gunmaking. There are terrific books on the country’s pioneering textile industry at Lowell, Massachusetts. Thomas Dublin’s
All these are scholarly books first published by university presses. But they’re clearly written and important for anyone who wants to understand the beginnings of American industry.
by Charles B. Dew (1994; Norton). This gem of a book tells the story of an antebellum Virginia ironworks that used slave labor; its Pennsylvania-born owner; and the enslaved men who worked there. Because he discovered an extraordinary set of records, Dew was able to describe in detail the characters in his story and their interactions; indeed, an entire section focuses on individual slaves. Dew set out, as one critic wrote, to “ask large questions in small places” and he succeeded in providing answers to such basic questions as how anyone could consent to own slaves, how masters controlled their enslaved workers (force, it seems, was of limited use), and how those workers shaped their circumstances in a “never-ending struggle against the dehumanizing aspects of their bondage.”
by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852; many editions). Did President Abraham Lincoln actually say to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “So you’re the little lady who caused this big war”? Whether or not the story is true,
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 prompted Stowe to write, but the book attacked the entire “sinful” institution of slavery. Stowe made her points through characters such as Eliza, Little Eva, the slave girl Topsy, and Uncle Tom, who quickly became stock characters in American culture. The novel also tells a lot about the mid-nineteenth-century world of which Stowe was a part, including its Protestant religiosity, its concepts of women, even, despite Stowe’s message, its racism. In short, if you haven’t read
Then you might turn to another big book, Frederick Law Olmsted’s
edited by Harold Holzer (1993; Fordham). Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Stephen Douglas spoke from complete written texts during their famous debates of 1858, although they used notes—both sets long since lost. Surviving versions of their speeches came from the intensely partisan newspapers of the time. What the newspapers published was not, however, exactly what their stenographers recorded. Editors at Chicago’s leading Republican paper, the Daily Press and Tribune, fixed Lincoln’s spoken prose, repairing grammatical errors, cutting off run-on sentences and the like, but left Douglas’s pretty much alone. The Democratic Chicago Daily Times did the opposite.
Then in 1860 the Republicans published the debates in book form, using the Republican press’s version of Lincoln’s speeches and the Democratic press’s version of Douglas’s, both taken from a scrapbook Lincoln kept. But first Lincoln made further revisions in his speeches (more, Holzer says, than he admitted) and removed all the audience interventions that the newspapers had carefully recorded. That staid version of the debates showed off Lincoln’s eloquent moral statements to maximum advantage, reduced his on-site awkwardness compared with Douglas, and contributed enormously to his presidential candidacy. Subsequent publications of the debates reprinted that “doctored” text of 1860, sometimes reinserting some of the audience’s reactions.
Then how can we know what was actually said in 1858? That’s simple, Holzer said. Publish the Republican press’s version of Douglas’s speeches and the Democratic press’s version of Lincoln’s—that is, the “unexpurgated” texts neither paper saw fit to change. Actually, Holzer did more than that. He noted places where the two newspapers’ texts varied substantially and the different ways they described the audience’s reactions to certain statements. Best of all, he wrote a lively general introduction and wonderful descriptions of the scene for each of the debates that depict the physical setting, the audience, and the wild pageantry that was part of the event, as well as a brief gloss of the debate itself.
So far as I can tell, this book received remarkably little notice when it was first published. I have read only one serious critical essay. Yet to me, the Holzer edition is way more interesting than any other version of the debates. In fact, it’s the best introduction to nineteenth-century politics I know. To be sure, the debates are repetitious, and it’s fair to skip pages when the speakers dig deeply into the details of Illinois politics. But enjoy the combat, as Douglas quickly put Lincoln on the defensive, from which he struggled to recover. Note how both speakers parried or played audiences that were racist even in northern Illinois, where antislavery was more widespread than in the southern part of the state.
People flocked from afar sometimes to stand three hours—the length of a debate—in the beating sun, close enough to the platform, they hoped, that they could hear what was said. They laughed; they cheered. One heckler shouted that Lincoln was a fool. “I guess there are two of us,” he answered, sparking more laughter. The issue at stake—slavery and the future of the Union—was deadly serious, but still politics could be fun. And American democracy was young and well. These were real debates, not the scripted serial monologues that pass as “presidential debates” these days. Once again, only by looking back can we get a good vantage on where we are.
Well, there’s my list, and it has hardly a word on the settlement of the West, or on wars. Would colleagues have questioned it if I’d mentioned Bernard DeVoto’s wide-ranging
I feel even worse that I said nothing about the sudden, deadly diseases that distinguish the past from our world. I never even mentioned Charles E. Rosenberg’s classic