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