The best books to open doors to Early America

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

The Books I Picked & Why

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

By Eric Foner

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.


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Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore

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


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Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

By Stephanie McCurry

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


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

By Richard White

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.


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

By Jeanne Boydston

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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