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The Young Republic 1787 To 1860

June 2024
11min read

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.

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

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 Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860 focuses on the country’s first generation of female factory operatives and the changing conditions that shaped their lives; Robert F. Dalzell’s Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made examines the story from management’s side.

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.

Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge

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.”

Although Bond of Iron focuses on an atypical industrial setting, it shares themes with other modern studies of slavery. Back when college courses assigned Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South, slavery seemed a remarkably monolithic institution. Since then scholars have discovered how dramatically it changed with time and place, and also how the enslaved themselves shaped the functioning of the institution. For a book on American slavery that builds upon and summarizes a mass of contemporary scholarship, see Ira Berlin’s admirably readable Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most important novel, and perhaps the most important book, in American history. First written for an antislavery newspaper in installments—later chapters—that unfold like a soap opera, the book grasps the reader’s attention and won’t let go despite the improbability of its final part.

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 Uncle Tom’s Cabin, your knowledge of this country’s past is seriously incomplete. The deficiency is, however, easily and painlessly overcome; the book’s 500 or so pages are easy reading.

Then you might turn to another big book, Frederick Law Olmsted’s The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States, based on an extensive trip the 30-year-old author made in early 1850s. Olmsted published two volumes under that title in 1861, having published an even longer account in three volumes a few years earlier. Fortunately, there’s an excellent 1953 abridged version, reissued in 1996, intelligently edited and with an introduction by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The pictures of the various sections of the antebellum South that Olmsted gives, the conversations he recounts, even his own irritation with the discomforts and backwardness he encountered are unforgettable. In the end Olmsted decided that slavery prevented the progress so evident farther north; it served to prolong “evils which properly belong only to a frontier.”

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete Unexpurgated Text

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 The Year of Decision: 1846? A historian writing today would say more about Indians and the environment, but DeVoto told well the more traditional story of “Westward expansion.” I could hardly have listed Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which includes some of the most moving descriptions of the Mexican War I’ve read, since most of it postdates the 1850s. And I’ve given no good narrative account of the coming of the Civil War, such as David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 or the opening chapters of James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.

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 The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, which gives so fine a vantage on how people thought as well as on what they suffered. There’s also not a word here on the literature of the time. But I must stop; I’ve already tested the patience of editor and readers overmuch.

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