Thanksgiving is a time for sharing family stories and dusting off old heirlooms. It’s also a time for reflecting on the early days of our country’s history. In that spirit, we’ve put together a list of some of the best early American histories, both recent publications and deserving classics. From before the Constitution to the eve of the Civil War, we think each of these American Heirlooms is worth reading for this season of reflection.
The intensely human story of those who marched with General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence—when the whole American cause was riding on their success, without which all hope for independence would have been dashed and the noble ideals of the Declaration would have amounted to little more than words on paper. Based on extensive research in both American and British archives, 1776 is a powerful drama written with extraordinary narrative vitality. It is the story of Americans in the ranks, men of every shape, size, and color, farmers, schoolteachers, shoemakers, no-accounts, and mere boys turned soldiers. And it is the story of the King’s men, the British commander, William Howe, and his highly disciplined redcoats who looked on their rebel foes with contempt and fought with a valor too little known.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Simon & Schuster
Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us, the one who seems made of flesh rather than marble. In a sweeping narrative that follows Franklin’s life from Boston to Philadelphia to London and Paris and back, Walter Isaacson chronicles the adventures of the runaway apprentice who became, over the course of his eighty-four-year life, America’s best writer, inventor, media baron, scientist, diplomat, and business strategist, as well as one of its most practical and ingenious political leaders. He explores the wit behind Poor Richard’s Almanac and the wisdom behind the Declaration of Independence, the new nation’s alliance with France, the treaty that ended the Revolution, and the compromises that created a near-perfect Constitution.
The Cause : The American Revolution and its Discontents, 1773-1783
Joseph J. Ellis
Countering popular histories that romanticize the “Spirit of ’76,” this new history of the American Revolution demonstrates through “evocative profiles of British loyalists, slaves, Native Americans and soldiers uncertain of what was being founded” (Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune) that the rebels fought not for a nation but under the mantle of “The Cause,” a mutable, conveniently ambiguous principle all but destined to give rise to the warring factions of later American history. Combining action-packed tales of North American military campaigns with characteristically trenchant insight, The Cause “deftly foreshadows all the issues that would complicate America’s trajectory” (Richard Stengel, New York Times Book Review), forcing us to finally reconsider the story we have long told ourselves about our origins—as a people, and as a nation.
Democracy in America and Two Essays on America
Alexis de Tocqueville, Gerald Bevan (Translator)
In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, set out from post-revolutionary France on a journey across America that would take him 9 months and cover 7,000 miles. The result was Democracy in America, a subtle and prescient analysis of the life and institutions of 19th-century America. Tocqueville looked to the flourishing deomcratic system in America as a possible model for post-revolutionary France, believing that the egalitarian ideals it enshrined reflected the spirit of the age and even divine will. His study of the strengths and weaknesses of an evolving democratic society has been quoted by every American president since Eisenhower, and remains a key point of reference for any discussion of the American nation or the democratic system. This new edition is the only one that contains all Tocqueville’s writings on America, including the rarely-translated Two Weeks in the Wilderness, an account of Tocqueville’s travels in Michigan among the Iroquois, and Excursion to Lake Oneida.
Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution
Few in history can match the revolutionary career of the Marquis de Lafayette. Over fifty incredible years at the heart of the Age of Revolution, he fought courageously on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a soldier, statesman, idealist, philanthropist, and abolitionist. As a teenager, Lafayette ran away from France to join the American Revolution. Returning home a national hero, he helped launch the French Revolution, eventually spending five years locked in dungeon prisons. After his release, Lafayette sparred with Napoleon, joined an underground conspiracy to overthrow King Louis XVIII, and became an international symbol of liberty. Finally, as a revered elder statesman, he was instrumental in the overthrow of the Bourbon Dynasty in the Revolution of 1830. From enthusiastic youth to world-weary old age, from the pinnacle of glory to the depths of despair, Lafayette never stopped fighting for the rights of all mankind. His remarkable life is the story of where we come from, and an inspiration to defend the ideals he held dear.
Lafayette In the Somewhat United States
Drawn to the patriots’ war out of a lust for glory, Enlightenment ideas and the traditional French hatred for the British, young Lafayette crossed the Atlantic expecting to join forces with an undivided people, encountering instead fault lines between the Continental Congress and the Continental Army, rebel and loyalist inhabitants, and a conspiracy to fire George Washington, the one man holding together the rickety, seemingly doomed patriot cause. While full of the bickering and infighting that marks the American past—and present—this telling of the Revolution is just as much a story of friendship: between Washington and Lafayette, between the Americans and their French allies and, most of all between Lafayette and the American people. Coinciding with one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history, Vowell lingers over the elderly Lafayette’s sentimental return tour of America in 1824, when three fourths of the population of New York City turned out to welcome him ashore. As a Frenchman and the last surviving general of the Continental Army, Lafayette belonged to neither North nor South, to no political party or faction. He was a walking, talking reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the revolutionary generation and what the founders hoped this country could be. His return was not just a reunion with his beloved Americans it was a reunion for Americans with their own astonishing, singular past.
Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution
What causes people to forsake their country and take arms against it? What prompts their neighbors, hardly distinguishable in station or success, to defend that country against the rebels? That is the question H. W. Brands answers in his powerful new history of the American Revolution. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were the unlikeliest of rebels. Washington in the 1770s stood at the apex of Virginia society. Franklin was more successful still, having risen from humble origins to world fame. John Adams might have seemed a more obvious candidate for rebellion, being of cantankerous temperament. Even so, he revered the law. Yet all three men became rebels against the British Empire that fostered their success. Others in the same circle of family and friends chose differently. William Franklin might have been expected to join his father, Benjamin, in rebellion but remained loyal to the British. So did Thomas Hutchinson, a royal governor and friend of the Franklins, and Joseph Galloway, an early challenger to the Crown. They soon heard themselves denounced as traitors–for not having betrayed the country where they grew up. Native Americans and the enslaved were also forced to choose sides as civil war broke out around them. After the Revolution, the Patriots were cast as heroes and founding fathers while the Loyalists were relegated to bit parts best forgotten. Our First Civil War reminds us that before America could win its revolution against Britain, the Patriots had to win a bitter civil war against family, neighbors, and friends.
Rebels At Sea: Privateering in the American Revolution
Eric Jay Dolin
The heroic story of the founding of the U.S. Navy during the Revolution has been told many times, yet largely missing from maritime histories of America’s first war is the ragtag fleet of private vessels that truly revealed the new nation’s character—above all, its ambition and entrepreneurial ethos. In Rebels at Sea, best-selling historian Eric Jay Dolin corrects that significant omission, and contends that privateers, as they were called, were in fact critical to the American victory. Privateers were privately owned vessels, mostly refitted merchant ships, that were granted permission by the new government to seize British merchantmen and men of war. As Dolin stirringly demonstrates, at a time when the young Continental Navy numbered no more than about sixty vessels all told, privateers rushed to fill the gaps. Nearly 2,000 set sail over the course of the war, with tens of thousands of Americans serving on them and capturing some 1,800 British ships. Privateers came in all shapes and sizes, from twenty-five foot long whaleboats to full-rigged ships more than 100 feet long. Bristling with cannons, swivel guns, muskets, and pikes, they tormented their foes on the broad Atlantic and in bays and harbors on both sides of the ocean. The men who owned the ships, as well as their captains and crew, would divide the profits of a successful cruise—and suffer all the more if their ship was captured or sunk, with privateersmen facing hellish conditions on British prison hulks, where they were treated not as enemy combatants but as pirates. Some Americans viewed them similarly, as cynical opportunists whose only aim was loot. Yet Dolin shows that privateersmen were as patriotic as their fellow Americans, and moreover that they greatly contributed to the war’s success: diverting critical British resources to protecting their shipping, playing a key role in bringing France into the war on the side of the United States, providing much-needed supplies at home, and bolstering the new nation’s confidence that it might actually defeat the most powerful military force in the world.
Washington: A Life
A richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation and the first president of the United States. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one volume biography of George Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the reader through his adventurous early years, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America’s first president. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow shatters forever the stereotype of George Washington as a stolid, unemotional figure and brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods.