The best books to open doors to Early America

Martha Saxton Author Of The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington
By Martha Saxton

Who am I?

My first job out of college was doing research on seventeenth-century Connecticut. I studied Pequot Indians, medical treatments, religious disputes, witchcraft trials, women’s daily chores, and the activities of an extraordinary assortment of men, women, and children who intrigued and haunted me for years.  Eventually, I got a doctorate to be able to explore more fully and teach students about some of the remarkable paths of early Americans.

I wrote...

The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington

By Martha Saxton,

Book cover of The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington

What is my book about?

The Widow Washington is the first life of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, based on archival sources. Her son’s biographers have, for the most part, painted her as self-centered and crude, a trial and an obstacle to her oldest child. But the records tell a very different story.

Mary Ball Washington had a greater impact on George than mothers of that time and place usually had on their sons. George did not have the wealth or freedom to enjoy the indulged adolescence typical of young men among the planter class. Mary’s demanding mothering imbued him with many of the moral and religious principles by which he lived.The Widow Washington is a necessary and deeply insightful corrective, telling the story of Mary’s long, arduous life on its own terms, and not treating her as her son’s satellite.

The books I picked & why

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By Eric Foner,

Book cover of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

Why this book?

This is a riveting account of the achievements of Reconstruction, driven by newly freed people ambitious for a more egalitarian society, and the violent counterrevolution that extinguished it. Foner’s meticulous documentation of this national tragedy upends the myth that I and millions of other students learned: that Reconstruction resulted in corruption and misgovernment in the South, and the old, white-planter order had to be re-imposed. Reconstruction is a model of rethinking and replacing a longstanding, self-serving justification for the resolution of a pivotal national crisis with an evidence-based explanation.

Book of Ages

By Jill Lepore,

Book cover of Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Why this book?

Lepore’s delightful biography of Jane Franklin, Benjamin’s sister, gives an intimate sense of her difficult life, despite daunting gaps in the archives. The siblings were very fond of each other, and Ben Franklin helped his sister on her lifelong mission to educate herself. The wife of an alcoholic and the affectionate mother several children, Jane spent the majority of her time doing, with remarkable good will, the hard, repetitive work assigned to her sex. Even so, she retained her intellectual and political curiosity, reading, deliberating, and recording her spot-on and sometimes hilarious opinions

Confederate Reckoning

By Stephanie McCurry,

Book cover of Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

Why this book?

McCurry’s book opens up the remarkable story of angry white southern women using their power to make the Confederate and state governments responsive to their wartime needs. McCurry writes about women householders from families disrupted when mostly non-slaveholding farmers were drafted to fight a war for slavery while wealthier plantation owners were exempt. Building on her original work on southern yeoman families and the way gender shaped their practices and ideas, McCurry depicts the political actions and riots that women organized, that sprung from their shared ideas of community justice

The Middle Ground

By Richard White,

Book cover of The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815

Why this book?

A spacious and beautifully written study of Native American survival strategies up to the Revolution.  White explains the ways in which alliances with the French and British in their imperial struggles offered opportunities for some native groups to increase their own power at the expense of others. At the same time, these alliances often intensified Native American combat over trapping and territory with harrowing consequences. When the Seven Years War and then the Revolution eliminated their potential allies from North America, Native groups found themselves strikingly weakened, deprived of the “middle ground” they had created, where they could play one European power off against another.

Home and Work

By Jeanne Boydston,

Book cover of Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic

Why this book?

In this small, powerful book, Boydston shows how early capitalists paid their laborers less than subsistence wages, while unrecompensed wives struggled to fill the gap and feed their families. Poor, urban women foraged for food and clothing, took in boarders, and stretched what food they did have to keep their husbands and children fed and clothed. Wages, narrowly defined, did not extend to women’s efforts, but it was their efforts that made it possible to maintain and reproduce this early working class.   Manufacturers benefited from the surplus between what they paid workers and the real cost, that women produced, of maintaining them; they could put this back into their enterprises or take it as profit. Boydston’s book explains how ideas about gender, home, and work fueled a trend that made it almost impossible for  generations of workers ever to achieve a true “family wage.”

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