Jeff's Canon of US History

A quixotic project I’ve started: A list of books that gives the reader a pretty good end-to-end history of the US. I want some help - give me suggestions or alternatives to stuff I’ve got here, or give me some The general rules:

  • The primary books need to be 1 volume only. Yes Shelby Foote’s Civil War books are awesome; but they’re like 90000 pages. Who has time for that?
  • Biographies and the like are supplemental.

So here’s what I’ve come up with. This is based entirely off of books I own. There are some glaring gaps that I’d really like to fill in! Also the eras into which I slice and dice history are almost completely arbitrary and mostly reflect how I mentally categorize things. Naturally there is a lot of overlap.

Early Colonial America
The distinction I’m drawing between this & the next section is that I consider this to be everything up to say the French & Indian War.

Main Volume:

  • American Colonies by Alan Taylor. I really like this book because it spends a lot of pages dwelling on the non-British settlers.

Supplemental Volumes:

  • American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan. Honestly I’d say that folks should read this over American Colonies if they had to choose one. It’s not a broad survey, but the significance of slavery in American history cannot be overstated.

Colonial / Pre-Revolutionary US
Say from French & Indian War to the outbreak of the Revolution. I got nothing here.

The American Revolution
Main Volume:
Again I got nothing. I own The Glorious Cause but I haven’t read it; I have heard that it’s not all that great. If anyone can comment (or suggest a better history of the Revolution) I’m all ears. I also own Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, again I haven’t read it.

Naturally the Revolution & the founding of the nation involved lots of important people, they have biographies. Here are some I have read:

  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Hamilton is my favorite founding father, this is my favorite biography of any founder.
  • John Adams by David McCullough. It’s really good. From what I gather this volume really did a lot to rehabilitate Adams’ reputation.
  • Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. I really like Ron Chernow. Only about 10% into this (so says my Kindle) but I’m really enjoying it.

Birth of the Nation
Again I don’t actually have anything for the main volume here. I’m mainly interested in the very early days of the Republic, and for the purposes of this section I’m specifically not interested in books about the Revolution. Of special concern is the history of the creation of the Constitution. I’ve been recommended a couple of books along those lines (The Origins of the American Constitution and Plain, Honest Men. As of yet I own neither.)

Early US History
Say up through the War of 1812. Main Volume: Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood. I own this, have read a little bit. It’s good!

Any other suggestions for this era? The US was honestly a little bit sleepy back then. :)

Antebellum US History
Say from 1815 through the Mexican/American War. I choose that timeframe because it’s the timeframe covered by Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, which is one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

There are probably a lot of really good biographies that fall into this era - Jackson, Henry Clay, all those guys. Anyone have any I should add to this list?

The Civil War
Includes the lead-up to the war, say from 1850 or so onward. Single volume: Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. Mcpherson. Yes I rely on the Oxford History of the US; that’s because it’s so very good. BCOF is IMO the best single-volume Civil War history out there, bar none.

Some other good supplemental books:

  • Team of Rivals, on Lincoln’s cabinet. I read this book before President Obama namedropped it back in 2008. That’s street cred!
  • Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. There are a lot of Lincoln bios out there. This is the one I own.
  • Grant by Jean Edward Smith. This is a fantastic biography.
  • The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Mark Twain called it (and I’m paraphrasing) one of the great works of the English Language. He was a guy who knew what he was talking about, you should listen to him!

Naturally there are at least a few dozen individuals from this era who are worthy of biography. Suggestions?

Thus begins a huge yawning gulf in my list. I have pretty much nothing from here on through the early 20th century. I really ought to, can you help me out?

The Progressive Era
I guess this would be like from the late 1800s through what, World War I? Again it’s an era I have very little knowledge of.

The Gilded Age
I guess you’d mark this from what - around the mid teens through the onset of the Great Depression? Once again I don’t have any basic sources. A few books that are relevant to this timeline though:

  • The House of Morgan by Ron Chernow. Yes more Chernow. This goes beyond the Gilded Age - it’s a history of the bank, so it stretches pretty far through the modern era. Still, a lot of it focuses on J.P. Morgan himself.
  • Titan by Ron Chernow. Again. Honestly this is my least favorite of the four Chernow books on this list. It’s still worth a read though.

The Great Depression
Finally, something I’ve got some books on!
Freedom from Fear by David M. Kennedy. This may be my favorite history book of all time. It also covers WWII, but the bulk of it is about the Depression. It’s absolutely amazing.

Lords of Finance: It’s not just about the US (focuses on Germany and England as well), but it’s a good overview of how the monetary authorities screwed the entire planet up.
FDR by Jean Edward Smith. Naturally this includes stuff on WWII. The balance is probably 1/3 pre-Depression stuff, 1/3 Depression, 1/3 WWII. I’d really rather it have focused more on the first two; there are like a hojillion WWII books out there, it seems there are far fewer on the Depression.

World War II

Honestly here’s another area where there’s a bit of a hole in my collection. I have a few books on WWII (Keegan’s The Second World War, and Shirer’s [url=]Rise & Fall of the Third Reich) but they tend to have much more global perspective. I’d love it if someone could recommend a book specifically about WWII from a US perspective. Freedom From Fear is a pretty good start, but there must be others.

I also don’t have many supplemental books here. WWII is my father’s hobby horse, my interests tend more toward the Civil War & US history in the 60’s.

One book I will recommend here is David McCullough’s Truman. From what I understand, before this book Truman was regarded as something of a failure. Today he’s more respected; a lot of people put him in the list of top ten Presidents.

I don’t have anything here either. The 50’s were kind of sleepy from my POV. There was that whole Korea thing, but I know nothing about it. Anyone have any good suggestions? Grand Expectations was pretty well panned, at least as far as a book with four stars on Amazon can get panned.

The Sixties
Here we get into an area where I have a lot of recommendations, but nothing in the way of a general survey.

For a history of the development of sixties politics, you can’t go wrong with Before the Storm and Nixonland, both by Rick Perlstein. The political story of the sixties was definitely the massive sea change in American politics toward conservatism; Perlstein is IMO the definitive chronicler of this trend.

The other major domestic development in the sixties was the Civil Rights movement. I don’t think anyone has done as comprehensive a job as Taylor Branch - with Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge. I read the first two last Summer and they were fantastic; I’m looking forward to the third one. It’s hard for me to overstate how much these books affected me. They gave me a very different perspective on race in America, and they also made me mostly dislike JFK.

Probably here is a good place to recommend Robert Caro’s incomplete LBJ biography. I’ve only got the third book - Master of the Senate, and I’ve only read about 20% of it. But it’s pretty fantastic!

The third big development of the sixties was, of course, the Vietnam war. Anyone have anything they could recommend on that front?

I’m done typing for now, I’ll edit this post later with more.

Jumping b/c this is a great idea.

Almost a Miracle by John Ferling. A breezy, fantastic easy read of the War for Independence (Learn that John Paul Jones was much more badass than you thought)
1776 by David McCullough similar nice small read.

Forrest MCDonald’s E Plurubus Unum (sic) on the Constitution and ratification stuck in my mind from HS. Best volume by default there.

John Steele Gordon: An Empire of Wealth: Economic History of the US. Riveting chapter on why human history may never experience anything like the progress at the end of the 19th century ever again.

Many more but will think through.

I tend to prefer focused works that give you specialized information while laying down the context that is needed to grasp it, and I especially love American foreign policy histories because they are so often best explained using domestic politics as a key variable. Naturally, that doesn’t work for everyone but I think it’s a start.

Early US History (through war 1812)
Six Frigates: Founding of the US Navy: A very exciting read that gives you a window into America’s first serious foray into projecting its power beyond its shores, and it is simply fascinating how the personalities of men like Jefferson and Hamilton drove the decisionmaking process around what were actually some really important ships. Gives a great context for understanding how the war of 1812 came about.

The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in 19th Century America (1790’s through 1880’s or so) It’s an unexpectedly readable distillation of a vast amount of court case, legislative, and general history into a focused portrait of how America right up until the last few decades of the 19th century was a carefully regulated nation at the state and federal level. Could serve as an antidote to the common myth that America’s success as a young nation was based on the founding fathers being slightly repressed libertarians.

The Progressive Era
The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic. Karp’s hypothesis is that in understanding the domestic and international tensions that gave rise to the Spanish-American War, its subsequent occupations, and the buildup to WWI we see a template for American behavior for the 20th century. He is successful in providing a wealth of reasons for why he thinks this neglected war is so damned important if you are to understand what might well be the next major watershed moment after the Civil War.

Policing America’s Empire. Argues that a detailed examination of our first colonial efforts provides us with a means of understanding how the structures for a 20th century conception of a domestic state security apparatus came to be. Really specific focus, but it leaves you with a vivid cross-section of America and its unwilling vassals at a fascinating moment in history.

Cold War/Vietnam Slab
The Best and the Brightest with McNamara’s In Retrospect. Halberstam is relentless as he takes us from the ground in Vietnam to the highest levels of political and military decisionmaking in the US, and then McNamara does his best to give you his version of it from the perspective of an insider. Side by side, it’s really something else.

I would add William Tecumseh Sherman’s memoirs. It’s among my favorite accounts of the war. A professor lent me his copy and I still have it. /shame

1861: The Civil War Awakening is brand new and another excellent book on the lead-up to the war. You might consider adding it to the list as well?

I’m loving this idea and will be utilizing the hell out of your list. Thank you for taking the time!

I LOVED Albion’s Seed

This cultural history explains the European settlement of the United States as voluntary migrations from four English cultural centers. Families of zealous, literate Puritan yeomen and artisans from urbanized East Anglia established a religious community in Massachusetts (1629-40); royalist cavaliers headed by Sir William Berkeley and young, male indentured servants from the south and west of England built a highly stratified agrarian way of life in Virginia (1640-70); egalitarian Quakers of modest social standing from the North Midlands resettled in the Delaware Valley and promoted a social pluralism (1675-1715); and, in by far the largest migration (1717-75), poor borderland families of English, Scots, and Irish fled a violent environment to seek a better life in a similarly uncertain American backcountry. These four cultures, reflected in regional patterns of language, architecture, literacy, dress, sport, social structure, religious beliefs, and familial ways, persisted in the American settlements. The final chapter shows the significance of these regional cultures for American history up to the present. Insightful, fresh, interesting, and well-written, this synthesis of traditional and more current historical scholarship provides a model for interpretations of the American character. Subsequent volumes of this promised multivolume work will be eagerly awaited. Highly recommended for the general reader and the scholar.
- David Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle

LK: I actually somewhat share your opinion regarding smaller, more focused works. Some of my more recent purchases & reading selections have followed that pattern. Still, I also really do like the broad surveys of history. My preferred approach is to read the broad survey before diving down into more specific subjects - that gives me the ability to place the details in their proper context. The organization of my rather haphazard list reflects this sort of approach.

Along the lines of Foreign Policy histories - have you read From Colony to Superpower? I’ve had it on the shelf for a few years, but I have yet to crack it open.

truman, also by david mccullough was pretty good.

I figured as much, I just thought I’d be up front about it. No, I haven’t read it, but it’s been Kindelated so we’ll see if the upcoming family vacation proves useful.

I also recommend Dispatches as a sort of right-brain counterpart to those accounts, though I admit classifying it as “history” might be stretching a bit.

I’d describe it with “Vietnam as stoner magical realism.” I liked it though.

What, no Zinn?

Thank you for starting this! I love a great history book but getting guided to the good ones is a plus.

I do hope some of these turn out to have audiobook versions. I don’t really have time for all these tedious words, but some of these sound pretty interesting.

I read People’s History about, I don’t know… 10 years ago? From what I remember when it was at its best it was a really enlightening piece of work that provided some valuable alternate perspective. I also remember feeling like Zinn often reached way too far to fit historical events into his thesis.

Sadly I can’t provide specifics as it’s been over a decade and I was a much less sophisticated student back then. I probably owe it to myself to give it a reread.

No, it’s definitely worth it as a primary source, just as E.B. Sledge’sWith The Old Breed gives you a great perspective of that front line. I just tried to focus on works that explicitly concentrated on both the foreign and domestic elements so it was properly “American” history, but that’s just my own arbitrary way of narrowing the category at hand.

I like Howard Zinn the way I like Schlesinger; they write good textbook style histories, but I don’t typically enjoy textbook style histories. I keep them around as they are useful, but I can’t imagine reading them for fun. In that vein, though, the Loewen revisionist history stuff is a real page-turner. It’s the style of revisionism I like where it tells different parts of the story you generally hear in order to make it’s point rather than simply couching the same events in different language, if that makes sense. Still worth your while to compare to more conventional sources when you hit a wtf moment, but a fun read and full of ideas for a way to initiate or add detail to a period that you’re unfamiliar with. And, what the hell, I still have a lot of fondness for the Cartoon History of the US.

I have read it, and refer to it constantly. I would most certainly include it in your list.

I second Albion’s Seed.

For the progressive era, “Theodore Rex”, the second volume of Edmund Morris’ biography of Theodore Roosevelt, is a great read.

For another perspective on the 60s, I would definitely have a look at Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Whilst the Swinging 60s may not exactly have been the mood of the whole planet, I do think it would be worth throwing into your history as a bit of a cultural piece.

It might be too narrow in scope, but I really enjoyed HW Brands’ Age of Gold, which is about the California Gold Rush and how it affected the entire United States, changing settlement patterns, politics, even the run up to the Civil War.