Tag Archives: Bernard Bailyn

Fifteen books on the American Revolution: CSM’s picks and mine

The Christian Science Monitor offers a list of fifteen books on the American Revolution for your Fourth of July reading pleasure.  It’s not a bad list, although I think my personal picks would only include a couple of their selections.

Tell you what: I’ll take a page from CSM and list my fifteen favorite Revolution books, too.  It’s always fun to compare notes.

Let me stress that my list isn’t a balanced representation of the historiography, not by any means.  If somebody grabbed me by the shirt collar and asked me for fifteen books that would give them a pretty good overview of the Revolution, that list would look quite different from this one.  I’m not aiming for complete coverage.  These are just my personal faves.

Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.  When Clio goes about sprinkling her magic fairy dust, she bestows a more generous dose on some historians than others.  She poured a tenfold measure on Fischer.
  2. Paul Revere’s Ride also by David Hackett Fischer.  Another examination of a Revolutionary event in which Fischer uses the technique of “braided narrative” to reconstruct an important event, unpack all its implications, and present it in the form of an engrossing story.
  3. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn.  Explains why the colonists reacted to British policy the way they did, and in the process it opens up their entire political mindset.
  4. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood.  Hard to overstate this book’s richly deserved influence.  It’s packed with so many important ideas you want to highlight the whole thing.
  5. The Radicalism of the American Revolution also by Gordon Wood.  The Revolution changed the pre-modern world into the modern one.  Wood explains how and why, and he does it in prose so crystal clear that it’s easy to forget what intellectual heft this book has.
  6. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character by Charles Royster.  This is one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, a profound and elegant meditation on the Continental Army’s relationship to the Revolution and the society that made it.
  7. The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas by John Buchanan.  Of all the books written about the Southern Campaign, this one is the most fun.  Buchanan’s enthusiasm for the subject practically somersaults off the page.
  8. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War by Wayne E. Lee.  Provides a framework for understanding the forces that both restrained and escalated the ferocious conflict in the Carolinas.
  9. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia by Woody Holton.  Makes a very persuasive case that in the Old Dominion the Revolution wasn’t just a question of freedom from British oppression; it was also an attempt by the gentry to maintain their authority at home.
  10. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.  The most comprehensive, balanced, and thorough one-volume history of the war.
  11. John Adams by David McCullough.  A book that deserved its stupendous commercial success.  No biographer has ever brought a founding figure so vividly to life.
  12. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse by Lawrence E. Babits and Joshua B. Howard.  A fascinating piece of detective work, and the most precise reconstruction of a single Rev War battle.  (Honorable mention for Babits’s Cowpens book, too.)
  13. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 by Pauline Maier.  Unravels the process by which loyal British subjects became Americans.
  14. His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis.  There are a lot of books on Washington, but I admire the way Ellis captures his essence in this concise portrait.  It’s not a cradle-to-grave treatment, but it’s more effective than just about any book out there if you want to get your head around the man and his significance.  Same goes for Ellis’s Jefferson book.
  15. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence by John Shy.  An essay collection that’s loaded with insights.  Shy asks and answers many of the important questions about the Rev War.

As I said, my list leaves out a lot of important authors and topics, while other subjects are overrepresented.  A comprehensive Revolutionary reading list should also include Alfred Young, T.H. Breen, Gary Nash, Linda Kerber, Rhys Isaac, and Mary Beth Norton.  Likewise, it should have more thorough coverage of the shift from Confederation to Constitution, include biographies of additional key players, and make some space for the important campaigns in the North—to say nothing of the Revolution’s impact on women, slaves, Indians, tenants, and the urban underclass.

But those are the fifteen Am Rev books I’ve read and re-read with the most pleasure and awe.  Feel free to share your own picks in the comments.

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Following the evidence

Lately I’ve been digging back into a couple of classics on political thought during the American Revolution.  The first is Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which originated as an introduction to a collection of pamphlets written during the imperial crisis.  The second is Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of these two books.  Both of them helped generate historians’ appreciation of republicanism as the dominant theme of revolutionary politics, a synthesis that made sense of eighteenth-century Americans’ obsession with public virtue, the common good, and the invasive nature of power.

Ideological Origins and Creation of the American Republic have something in common besides their arguments, something that explains why both books were seminal when first published and have stood the test of time.  In assembling their work, both Bailyn and Wood let the evidence guide them.  They saturated themselves in what revolutionary-era Americans were reading and writing, they looked for patterns, and they made sense of it all.  They didn’t ask, “What were eighteenth-century Americans thinking about such-and-such a subject?”  Instead, they simply asked, “What were eighteenth-century Americans thinking?” 

Writing the history of political thought, or any kind of intellectual history, should be an attempt to recover a past worldview.  Bailyn and Wood didn’t consider themselves to be shapers of the evidence.  They considered themselves subject to it, and that accounts for their work’s remarkable staying power; they listened to the American Revolutionaries and then allowed them to speak to us.

(Both book cover images are from Amazon.com.)

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography