The Best Books on American History – Five Books Expert Recommendations

I know this will inevitably be your own personal take, but what is important in American history?

I have spoken and written about the history of the United States being shaped by five major themes, which influenced my selection of historic places for America’s Fifty Great Places. These are: the history of freedom, the influence of war, the impact of innovation and technology, the tradition of diverse cultural experiences, and the influence of the American landscape. these themes span all periods of American history and the events that shaped it.

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Do you think looking at it thematically rather than chronologically makes it less overwhelming?

It’s not one or the other, and it’s not overwhelming! My book makes American history accessible by integrating subject matter, chronology, and geography. Readers can start with the first chapter, at the National Mall in Washington, DC, a central place where these themes come together. the following forty-nine essays are in chronological order.

As a public historian, how easy is it to get people interested in history? how do you go about doing it?

I wrote the book to encourage historical literacy and by that I also mean historical curiosity. the way we are taught in school often discourages an interest in history because there is so much emphasis on memorizing dates and names. does not stimulate curiosity. I wrote my book with the expectation that people would use it as a springboard to stimulate their curiosity about American history. I want to encourage people to get out there and experience American history, to get a first-hand look at these unique places that reflect our history and our heritage. and I want to encourage people to preserve historic sites. we often take for granted that many of these places have always been here and will always be here. in fact, many people, including many notable women leaders, have had the foresight to recognize the importance of preserving history. I especially appreciate the National Park Service, a federal agency that celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and plays an important role in preserving great historic places in the country. probably half of the sites in the book are managed by the national park service.

here in england, whenever we learn history, it seems that whether as a university student, in school or even in primary school, you always learn about the tudors. you start to get a bit sick of tudors after a while. Is American education like that too? Do people get a little tired of learning about certain events and want a broader perspective?

It’s interesting. Not too long ago, people weren’t too interested in America’s founders, and we stopped calling them “the founding fathers.” It’s an unlikely job to revive interest in American history, but it has taken New York and the country by storm. is a light-hearted musical with period costumes, multicultural cast and stars, and hip-hop and rap music. it’s a fantastic way to generate new interest from a younger generation in the founding of the country and some of the issues that they faced. Another period of American history that you think would have worn off in terms of how much we can say is the civil war in this country. It is what is most talked about and what is most written about. there are more movies about the civil war than about any other war. but there seems to be no end of interest in that period. When you read a book like this Republic of Suffering by Draw Gilpin Faust, I think you understand how impactful the Civil War was on generations to come. Public memory of the Civil War continues to dominate America’s collective memory even today.

and also, I feel for your books, that the history that is being written now is simpler?

yeah, it’s not as clean as before. Back in the early 1990s, Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, made a big impact with his documentary, The Civil War, which aired on public television. it showed pictures of Confederate and Union soldiers killed on the battlefield and some of the photographs of the wounded. he really brought into everyone’s living room the unadorned story of how horrible that war was for hundreds of thousands of people.

let’s talk about his first book, which is the great bridge by david mccullough. I think this is relevant to the technology topic of it?

david mcullough is a friend and mentor. His topics range from the Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania to biographies of presidents and the Wright brothers. The Great Bridge was, for me, a fundamental book in understanding how a story about a great engineering achievement can be told in the context of New York’s urban history and development. he’s such a masterful storyteller that he can engage you in what seemed like an unlikely subject for a full-length nonfiction narrative and succeed in spectacular fashion.

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judging from the reviews on amazon, people seem to think this is an absolutely gripping book. walking over the brooklyn bridge, it’s amazing to think about that story. but why that particular bridge, that particular moment?

I was born in brooklyn and grew up on long island, so I have some personal connections to this particular site. but what he suggested to me was that this bridge is unique as an illustration of how nature and technology can be in harmony. when you see the brooklyn bridge, or walk on the bridge, you feel like you belong there. it has a sense of permanence, an enduring quality, a blend of beauty and function that has inspired artists, filmmakers, and poets.

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When you think you can write an exciting book about a bridge, it also makes you think that an interesting story could be written about all sorts of things if you just started digging into the subject.

exactly. the way he used sources—remember this book was published in the early 1970s, so he didn’t have access to all the sources we now have through the internet—he was able to use photographs, drawings, and illustrations from magazines like a way of increasing your research. It’s a very powerful story. even though you know what the end is, you know the bridge was built and it’s still there, it creates a dramatic sense of what it took to create this bridge and complete it. he is also very adept at developing the characters, the human element, of the roebling family: john roebling, his son washington roebling, and finally emily, washington roebling’s wife, who played a crucial role in the final years of building the bridge because washington roebling was disabled by caissons disease. she ended up watching most of the bridge construction from his apartment window. his wife emily was the key communicator between roebling and the engineers working on the site. that was an important role and david mcullough highlights it in the book.

and the father also died as a result of an injury from the bridge.

yes, he was one of the first casualties, if not the first. while he was serving on the site, he fell and later died of tetanus.

Looking down your list, death seems to be a unifying theme. Which book will we talk about next?

my next pick is wilderness at dawn by ted morgan. this book shaped my understanding of human geography. It reminds readers that America was colonized by several different cultures and countries. It is a triumph of narrative over the different borders of America. we were often taught American history as if it were from east to west and the British settlement as the pre-eminent story. Ted Morgan’s book emphasizes the fact that there were multiple settlements and multiple beginnings of American history. he spends the first few chapters talking about American Indians and their presence on the landscape before European settlement. that influenced me quite a bit and shaped how I selected my sites for my book. the first two places i talk about are the cahokia mounds along the mississippi river near st louis in illinois and the other is mesa verde in colorado. Ted Morgan writes about both places. But the Spanish presence, the French and Dutch presence, as well as the English later, play an important role in the settlement of North America.

Who were the first Americans? did they come across the bering strait from russia?

which is still debated by archaeologists today. Some of the more recent theories are that the first Americans may have reached the Americas by boat rather than crossing the Bering Strait. If you attend an archaeological conference, you will witness some very heated debates between archaeologists, who will defend their different theories about how the first Americans arrived and where they first settled. I choose not to get into that debate, but it has been shown that the original settlements were probably 15-16,000 years ago rather than 7,000-8,000 as originally thought.

ted morgan has a gift for telling stories within stories. when he talks about the spanish settlement in new mexico, he digresses and talks about the revolt of the pueblo indians in 1680, the only successful revolt of native americans against colonial rule in history. He provides important details around that revolt that clearly influenced the chapter I wrote on the Governors Palace in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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The reviews of this book also focus on the fact that it is narrated from the point of view of the people. one even calls it a “new take on American history.”

I think that is an important point to highlight. history is not inevitable. it is based on the decisions and choices people make. Morgan is very adept at identifying the key decisions and key choices people made that really affected the outcome. sometimes we reread the story and say, “it had to end this way,” but it’s not so clear to people who are actually living in that time, how the story will unfold.

let’s move on to your next book. shall we talk about eric foner’s history of american liberty?

This is a seminal work of historical scholarship. I have met Eric Foner on several occasions and he is a Distinguished Professor at Columbia University and has published many books, most of them on the 19th century and some of the key issues of the 19th century. but this book is a survey of American history on the subject of freedom, and how that word has changed meaning, depending on what time period we’re talking about. She writes about freedom from the point of view of the revolt against colonial rule in the eighteenth century, the notion of freedom and the defense of ending slavery in the united states, the expansion of freedom to include women in the political life of the country, ideas about freedom in relation to who was going to become an American and the freedom to enter this country—a great debate that is still going on in the country—as well as the influence of the cold war when it existed the free world versus the communist bloc—and how freedom was understood during that period. Then there is the personal freedom movement of the 1960s and beyond, where especially in Western countries, and especially in the United States, the idea of ​​personal liberty and personal liberty became very widespread.

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He comments in the book that “freedom is the oldest of clichés and the most modern of aspirations.” it’s almost as if we’re not talking about a word here: it seems to mean different things to different people at times, some of which are probably contradictory.

You can see that in debates throughout American history. More recently, there is this notion that freedom has to do with the role of government in our lives. American history is marked by these debates about how intrusive we will allow the government to place restrictions on our personal freedom. on the other hand, we expect the government to protect us from encroachments of capitalism or downturns in the economy. There is an expectation that government has a role to play in ensuring our freedom as well as the limits of government. And that debate continues today, especially during our election campaign.

whereas here in england, “freedom” is not a term that comes up much in a political context. no one aspires to “freedom” as a goal, although we clearly expect it as a reality.

There are two central ideas that really characterize the American story. First of all, the “unalienable rights”, which are mentioned in the declaration of independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. the second idea is ‘self-government’, that we are governing ourselves. we are not subject to a monarch or a military dictatorship or a priesthood. we pride ourselves on self-governance. but those two ideals conflict very often. This is an important theme that runs through United States history, and Eric Foner does a wonderful job of documenting it from the beginning of United States history to the present.

Which book will we talk about next?

The following selection returns to the theme of death and dying. this republic of suffering by draw gilpin faust was, for me, an extraordinary book because, as i said before, we have written so much and seen so many movies that we think we know everything about the civil war. but what the civil war was about, when you break it down into its essential components, was mass killing on a scale we never dreamed of. I’ve seen an estimate that if we had the same number of people dead today, as a percentage of the US population, we would have lost six million people. The whole process of caring for the dead, burying the dead, and documenting the dead was a whole new experience. There were no national cemeteries, for example, until the civil war. drew gilpin faust takes on this rather serious task of documenting and, through his research and writing, demonstrating how impactful the civil war was on the consciousness of Americans in dealing with this rather grim reality of mass death and murder.

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I read that there were six million pounds of human and animal corpses in Gettysburg.

yes. gettysburg is one of the places I write about in my book. the national cemetery there is one of the first to be developed in the country. Gettysburg National Cemetery was where Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, so the task of reburiing the trade union dead at Gettysburg is directly tied to the speech many believe to be the greatest speech in American history. gave a new meaning to civil war. it wasn’t just about preserving the union, now the civil war would be about giving us, to quote the address, “a new birth of liberty.” this connects back to eric foner’s book. It has an entire chapter devoted to the abolitionist movement, the Gettysburg Address, and the new birth of liberty that resulted from the Civil War.

A reviewer also mentioned that he liked this book because it is ultimately not just about civil war, but a meditation on the meaning of war in general.

yes, you can use the civil war as a platform to talk about a new understanding of the terrible cost of war in general, because this was a war on an unprecedented scale. the whole world came to understand what the impact would be. there was no other major war until the first world war. so we had almost fifty years of peace. not quite peace because, of course, there were wars in europe and asia but not on the scale of the american civil war.

We are now at your fifth and final choice of books, which is set in the ice kingdom.

This book is an amazing mix of great scholarship and great storytelling. Hampton Sides is known as a nature and outdoor writer. he was able to piece together, through an amazing use of source material, this incredible story of the efforts to discover the north pole. in many ways this was similar, in the 1870s and 1880s, to the 1960s efforts to go to the moon. The North Pole was one of those unknown areas that fascinated the scientific community and also became a goal of national aspiration. which country could be the first to reach the north pole? The United States, fresh from civil war and gaining recognition for its technology and scientific progress, took on the challenge of putting together an expedition. It was privately financed by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., who was the publisher of the New York Herald. He joined the United States Navy in commissioning this voyage of the USS Jeannette in 1879 to find a route that would take them to the North Pole. it’s a story of exploration, survival and death, and it has a lot of amazing characters. It is an incredible but tragic story: only 13 of the 33 men who were on the trip survived.

How does this fit into the overall theme of American history, would you say?

If I had to draw a line between all these books, it might be the notion of the border. be it the frontier of technology, in the case of the brooklyn bridge, or the frontier of discovery of the north pole, or the frontier of freedom and the intellectual limits explored by eric foner. and then, perhaps, the final frontier, that of death, which is reflected in draw gilpin faust’s book. there is the combination of the emotional and the intellectual in the realization of the impact of death. there is also the exploration of the human experience that these books represent. perhaps the exploration of new frontiers is the best way to describe the common character of these books.

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