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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Eric Foner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Reconstruction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Newly Reissued with a New Introduction: From the "preeminent historian of Reconstruction" (New York Times Book Review), a newly updated edition of the prize-winning classic work on the post-Civil War period which shaped modern America. Eric Foner's "masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history" (New Republic) redefined how the post-Civil War period was viewed. Reconstruction chronicles the way in which Americans-black and white-responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. It addresses the ways in which the emancipated slaves' quest for economic autonomy and equal citizenship shaped the political…

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

Why did I love 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

By Jill Lepore,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Book of Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


NPR • Time Magazine • The Washington Post • Entertainment Weekly • The Boston Globe


From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians—a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, Jane, whose obscurity and poverty were matched only by her brother’s fame and wealth but who, like him, was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator.

Making use of an astonishing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore…

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

Why did I love 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

By Stephanie McCurry,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Confederate Reckoning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pulitzer Prize Finalist
Winner of the Frederick Douglass Book Prize
Winner of the Merle Curti Award

"McCurry strips the Confederacy of myth and romance to reveal its doomed essence. Dedicated to the proposition that men were not created equal, the Confederacy had to fight a two-front war. Not only against Union armies, but also slaves and poor white women who rose in revolt across the South. Richly detailed and lucidly told, Confederate Reckoning is a fresh, bold take on the Civil War that every student of the conflict should read."
-Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic

"McCurry challenges…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Richard White,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Middle Ground as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An acclaimed book and widely acknowledged classic, The Middle Ground steps outside the simple stories of Indian-white relations - stories of conquest and assimilation and stories of cultural persistence. It is, instead, about a search for accommodation and common meaning. It tells how Europeans and Indians met, regarding each other as alien, as other, as virtually nonhuman, and how between 1650 and 1815 they constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world in the region around the Great Lakes that the French called pays d'en haut. Here the older worlds of the Algonquians and of various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created…

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

Why did I love 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.”

By Jeanne Boydston,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Home and Work as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over the course of a two hundred year period, women's domestic labor gradually lost its footing as a recognized aspect of economic life in America. The image of the colonial "goodwife," valued for her contribution to household prosperity, had been replaced by the image of a "dependent" and a "non-producer." This book is a history of housework in the United States prior to the Civil War. More particularly, it is a history of women's unpaid domestic labor in the context of the emergence of an industrialized society in the northern United States. Boydston argues that just as a capitalist economic…

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