The best books on Revolutionary America that go beyond the Founding Fathers and focus on the lives of women

John Wood Sweet Author Of The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America
By John Wood Sweet

Who am I?

I'm an American historian and former director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Program in Sexuality Studies—and former pizza maker, gas pumper, park ranger, and tour guide at the house in which Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women. As a historian, I've spent my career trying to understand the lives of people in early American history who weren't well known at the time. In writing the Sewing Girl's Tale, which focuses on a survivor of a sexual assault, it was especially important to keep her at the center of the story. Ultimately, I wanted to know: What was life in the aftermath of the American Revolution like—not for some Founding Father—but for an ordinary young woman.


I wrote...

The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America

By John Wood Sweet,

Book cover of The Sewing Girl's Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America

What is my book about?

On a moonless night in the summer of 1793, a crime in the back room of a New York brothel transformed Lanah Sawyer’s life. It was the kind of crime that even victims usually kept secret. Instead, the seventeen-year-old seamstress did what virtually no one else dared to do: she charged a gentleman with rape. The trial rocked the city and nearly cost Lanah her life. And that was just the start.

The Sewing Girl's Tale is the story of an extraordinary prosecution in the aftermath of the American Revolution—and its contemporary relevance. Reviewers have hailed the book as “a masterpiece” (Wall Street Journal), “decidedly pro-woman” (Atlanta Journal Constitution), and “excellent and absorbing” (New York Times).

The books I picked & why

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Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

By Erica Strong Dunbar,

Book cover of Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Why this book?

This best-selling book tells an important story about Black women's struggles for freedom and autonomy at the founding of the American nation. And tells it so well! One of my favorite things about this book is that the title is a bit misleading: this is not actually (another) book about the Washingtons.The book centers on Ona Judge, a woman who freed herself after the Revolution and forged a new life in the tumultuous world of the newly independent United States. Dramatic and suspenseful as her personal story is, this book also tells a bigger story about how it was enslaved people themselves who made the North free. Heartbreaking, heroic, dramatic, suspenseful, inspiring.


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?

This widely acclaimed book uses the opaque diary of an obscure midwife from rural Maine in the decades after the Revolution to transform how we think about women's lives and women's work. A tour de force of the historian's craft, written with skill, compassion, and a flair for drama. As a professional historian, one of the things I love most about this book is the way that every chapter is such a revelation. Each chapter begins with a passage from the diary that at first seems mundane and uninteresting—until Ulrich starts working her magic. Soon, there is a puzzle to be solved. And by the end of each chapter, she's rummaged around in her hat and pulled out another rabbit. A revelation!


Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore,

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

Why this book?

This book about Jane Franklin (yes, one of her brothers was Benjamin Franklin) turns our culture's obsession with the Founding Fathers on its head. What, Lepore asks, did it mean to be a woman in the Age of Revolution? To be sure, Jane was a relatively well-off, relatively well-educated white woman in a cosmopolitan town, and, as their surviving correspondence reveals, she wasn't above giving her celebrated brother a piece of her mind. But she also faced limits he didn't and developed very different priorities. Lepore is justly celebrated for her brilliant storytelling, her sharp insights, her lean, inventive prose—and her seemingly effortless ability to find just the right detail to make her point. 


Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton

By Tilar J. Mazzeo,

Book cover of Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton

Why this book?

This book is compelling because Mazzeo is such a skillful writer of creative nonfiction (I also loved her Great Courses lectures on that subject)—and because the focus on Eliza Hamilton shifts what we thought we knew about her vaunted husband. Mazzeo is terrific at keeping Eliza at the center of her own story. And Mazzeo is not afraid to offer informed speculation when the documentary record, as it often does for underrepresented voices from this period, falters. As a professional historian, I learned a lot about centering women's experiences in stories that men keep threatening to take over—and about what kinds of speculation I am and am not comfortable with. I also found her approach to the Reynolds Affair—carefully documented, well reasoned, and centered on Eliza's perspective—to be bold, refreshing, and pretty persuasive. Why should we (as most recent Hamilton scholars have done) simply take Alexander Hamilton at his word about his role in the defining scandal of his life? 


Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

By Rebecca Hall, Hugo Martínez (illustrator),

Book cover of Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

Why this book?

This book brings the format of a graphic novel to the subject of women's resistance during enslavement and the trans-Altantic slave trade—and the result is fresh and compelling. As a historian myself, I appreciated the interwtined narratives of Hall's own research quest as a historian following the documentary record—and her reconstruction of the extraordinary revolt of the women held captive in 1772 on the slave-ship Unity. Both the search for truth and the dramatic uprising are conveyed with great skill and emotional power. The account of the Unity revolt calls attention to what we know, how we know it, and what we don't know. But Hall refuses to stop there. Instead, carefully marking speculation as such, Hall offers a fascinating, well-informed, effort to imagine a fuller account of what might have actually happened. We are left with a powerful sense of why this history matters two and a half centuries later. Vivid, unsettling, and compelling.  


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