The best books about ingenuity and innovation in the age of the American Revolution

Who am I?

My interest in the American Revolution began with a college course on the French Revolution. I was enthralled by the drama of it all. Being the impressionable late adolescent that I was, I naturally explained to my professor, a famous French historian of the French Revolution, that I wanted to dedicate my life to the study of this fascinating historical period. My professor urged me to reconsider. He suggested I look at a less well-known Revolution, the one British colonists undertook a decade earlier. I started reading books about the American Revolution. Now, forty years on, I’m still enthralled by the astonishing creative energy of this period in American history. 


I wrote...

Tom Paine's Iron Bridge: Building a United States

By Edward G. Gray,

Book cover of Tom Paine's Iron Bridge: Building a United States

What is my book about?

With the sole exception of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, was the single most important publication of the American Revolution. In the winter of 1775-76, a time when colonists remained deeply reticent about the prospect of leaving the British Empire, Common Sense convinced tens of thousands of readers that an independent United States was not only possible, but was also urgently necessary. The alternative, Paine explained in the plainest of terms, was tyranny.

In the years following, Paine came to see new barriers to American independence—not kings and empires, but political division and factionalism. Technology, Paine believed, offered a solution. Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge: Building a United States is the story of Paine’s quest to solve a political problem with technology.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley

By Jane Kamensky,

Book cover of A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley

Why this book?

Eighteenth-century innovators came in many forms. Some were artisans, the craftspeople who made utilitarian things. Some were what were sometimes called toy makers, not because they made toys, but because they made baubles and trinkets for adults. Some were natural philosophers, whose innovations came in the physical sciences. And some were artists—creators of high-priced, highly-prized, and beautiful things. In this latter category, John Singleton Copley was America’s most accomplished. Perhaps the finest portraitist ever to paint in America, on the eve of the War for Independence, the young Copley left for Britain, never to return to the country of his birth. Kamensky’s intimate and moving portrait shows Copley, the ex-pat and loyalist, ascending to the pinnacle of the British art world. But far more importantly, it shows the price Copley and his family paid for this ascent, reminding the reader that innovation does not happen in a political vacuum. 

A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley

By Jane Kamensky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Revolution in Color as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this life of painter John Singleton Copley, Jane Kamensky untangles the web of principles and interests that shaped the age of America's revolution. Copley's talent earned him the patronage of Boston's leaders but he did not share their politics and painting portraits failed to satisfy his lofty artistic goals. A British subject who lamented America's provincialism, Copley looked longingly across the Atlantic. When resistance escalated into war, he was in London. A painter of America's revolution as Britain's American War, the magisterial canvases he created made him one of the towering figures of the British art scene. Kamensky brings…


The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America

By Steven Johnson,

Book cover of The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America

Why this book?

Few figures better embody the intersection of innovation and revolutionary radicalism than the brilliant theologian, political theorist, and natural philosopher, Joseph Priestley, the subject of Johnson’s delightful and informative book. An ordained minister, Priestley abandoned the teachings of the Church of England for Unitarianism, a move that banished him to the theological sidelines. Priestley’s brilliance was not limited to the theological and, as he moved to the outer fringes of British religious life, he moved to the red-hot center of the nation’s scientific life, gaining election to the esteemed Royal Society. Among Priestley’s many contributions to the chemical sciences was to identify components parts of air, including the elemental oxygen. As he pursued far-reaching truths in the natural sciences, Priestley’s religious views remained controversial and by the time revolution erupted in France, they had elicited a reaction from British government officials, terrified by the contagion of revolution. Facing criminal prosecution for sedition, Priestley fled Britain for the young United States, where he would remain for the final decade of his life. 

The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America

By Steven Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Invention of Air as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of How We Got To Now, The Ghost Map and Farsighted, a new national bestseller: the “exhilarating”( Los Angeles Times) story of Joseph Priestley, “a founding father long forgotten”(Newsweek) and a brilliant man who embodied the relationship between science, religion, and politics for America's Founding Fathers.

In The Invention of Air, national bestselling author Steven Johnson tells the fascinating story of Joseph Priestley—scientist and theologian, protégé of Benjamin Franklin, friend of Thomas Jefferson—an eighteenth-century radical thinker who played pivotal roles in the invention of ecosystem science, the discovery of oxygen, the uses of oxygen, scientific experimentation,…


A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,

Book cover of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

Why this book?

Paine, Copley, and Priestley were all beneficiaries of formal institutional associations, mostly through the voluntary scientific and art associations, the American Philosophical Society in America and the Royal Society and Royal Academy in Britain. Martha Ballard, a midwife living during the early years of the American Republic in Maine (at the time a province of Massachusetts), had no formal associations but she did have deep and abiding affiliations. If not with elite academies, sanctioned by kings, and populated by periwigged gentlemen, then with family and community.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale remains the finest study ever written about the generative power of family and community in the early history of the American republic. Ballard’s meticulous diary, nearly 10,000 entries, afforded Ulrich access to the full, grueling realities of this remarkable woman’s life—through her own family’s trials, which included the births of her nine children, and the more than eight hundred births Martha attended as midwife and medical practitioner. In an era when formal medicine largely ignored the health of mothers and babies, Martha became an expert medical practitioner, building on years of experience and becoming a trusted and essential citizen of her remote village of Hallowell, Maine.

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Midwife's Tale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, "A truly talented historian unravels the fascinating life of a community that is so foreign, and yet so similar to our own" (The New York Times Book Review).

Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and…


Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity

By Nick Bunker,

Book cover of Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity

Why this book?

No single American better embodies the ideals of ingenuity and innovation than the great polymath Benjamin Franklin. Practically everything a man could do in the eighteenth century Franklin did—and he did them with an aptitude matched by few and exceeded by even fewer. Franklin made a fortune in the printing trade—rare enough in the publishing and printing capitals of Europe, but all but unheard of in the colonies. His scientific discoveries were unparalleled and earned him the accolades of the greatest scientific minds of the age.

He was also responsible for countless inventions—including the lightning rod, bifocals, a smokeless stove, and the glass armonica, an instrument for which both Mozart and Beethoven composed music. He was a master of the byzantine politics of European royal courts—this despite being of ordinary birth and coming of age in a place with none of the pomp and majesty of Europe’s great imperial capitals. Of all the countless biographies of Franklin, none does more to illuminate the origins of Franklin’s genius than Nick Bunker’s The Birth of Ingenuity. Although it covers Franklin’s life long before the events of the Revolution, the book is fundamentally a story of the Revolution. It explains how an obscure printer's apprentice rose to become a founder of the United States. 

Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity

By Nick Bunker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Young Benjamin Franklin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this new account of Franklin's early life, Pulitzer finalist Nick Bunker portrays him as a complex, driven young man who elbows his way to success.

From his early career as a printer and journalist to his scientific work and his role as a founder of a new republic, Benjamin Franklin has always seemed the inevitable embodiment of American ingenuity. But in his youth he had to make his way through a harsh colonial world, where he fought many battles with his rivals, but also with his wayward emotions. Taking Franklin to the age of forty-one, when he made his…


"Most Blessed of the Patriarchs": Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

By Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onuf,

Book cover of "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs": Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

Why this book?

Next to Franklin, Thomas Jefferson is surely the most inventive, innovative member of the American Revolutionary pantheon. He is known for his powerful formulations of revolutionary ideas—in the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and his inaugural address as third President of the United States. These contributions rested on deep and disciplined study in the human sciences, including history, geography, ethnography, political economy, as well as applied sciences such as horticulture, viticulture, and architecture. In their learned meditation on the life and thought of this most learned of American founders, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf offer a fresh perspective on Jefferson.

In so many ways, he embodied the cutting-edge values of the American Revolution, but Jefferson also embodied the contradictions of the Revolution—particularly as they related to the institution of slavery. Rather than dismiss him as a hypocrite, Gordon-Reed and Onuf set out to explain Jefferson. For all his cosmopolitanism, they tell us, Jefferson was consumed with home, both as an idea and an actual place. He lavished endless attention on Monticello, his Virginia plantation house, with the intent of bringing his revolutionary ideas to the most intimate spaces of human life. But Jefferson’s difficult relations with his daughters, and his long-hidden relations with his enslaved mistress Sally Hemmings and her children, point to the limits of his idealism, particularly as applied in life’s most intimate settings. 

"Most Blessed of the Patriarchs": Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

By Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter S. Onuf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked "Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Thomas Jefferson is still presented today as an enigmatic figure, despite being written about more than any other Founding Father. Lauded as the most articulate voice of American freedom, even as he held people in bondage, Jefferson is variably described as a hypocrite, an atheist and a simple-minded proponent of limited government. Now, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and leading Jefferson scholar team up to present an absorbing and revealing character study that finally clarifies the philosophy of Jefferson. The authors explore what they call the "empire" of Jefferson's imagination-his expansive state of mind born of the intellectual influences and life…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, and statesmen?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, and statesmen.

The American Revolution Explore 112 books about the American Revolution
Thomas Jefferson Explore 40 books about Thomas Jefferson
Statesmen Explore 28 books about statesmen

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Birth Matters, Book of Ages, and More Work for Mother if you like this list.