The best books about the Declaration of Independence that bring the signers to life, warts and all

Why am I passionate about this?

Joseph D’Agnese grew up in the Bicentennial-fueled excitement of the 1970s, and spent 1976 fake-playing a fife and sporting a tricorn hat in various school events. Besides teaching him how to get in and out of Revolutionary-period knickers, this experience awakened in him a love for the Founding Era of American history. He has since authored three history titles with his wife, The New York Times bestselling author Denise Kiernan. 

I wrote...

Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence

By Denise Kiernan, Joseph D'Agnese,

Book cover of Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence

What is my book about?

In 1776, 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, the document which severed relations between the fledgling American colonies and Great Britain. I’d venture to say that most Americans have heard of only five of those signers: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and John Adams. The other 51 men may be more obscure, but their lives are no less interesting. My book, written with my wife and co-author Denise Kiernan, presents bite-sized biographies of all the signers. With just a few pages to a man, readers can delve in and out of their stories in any way they choose. These lighthearted capsule summaries reveal very real humans—with both foibles and genius—who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in service to a potentially unwinnable cause.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of 1776: A Musical Play

Joseph D'Agnese Why did I love this book?

When I was kid, it was a rite of passage to watch the movie version of this musical with my parents on TV during Fourth of July week in the U.S.. I’ve since seen regional theater productions as well.

Yes, the play is fun and funny, but what did not sink in until I’d done my own research into the lives of the signers was how marvelously the words and lyrics lay out the history. When one of the flashy South Carolina delegates sings “Molasses to Rum,” you understand the underlying economics of the slave trade. The songs still hold up and advance the plot, as all great Broadway songs must do.

But if you miss the words in the 1972 film or modern staged versions, the only way to absorb it all is to dip into the official libretto itself.

By Peter Stone, Sherman Edwards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 1776 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of five 1969 Tony Awards, including Best Book and Best Musical, this oft-produced musical play is an imaginative re-creation of the events from May 8 to July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, when the second Continental Congress argued about, voted on, and signed the Declaration of Independence.

Book cover of Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776

Joseph D'Agnese Why did I love this book?

Unless they’ve looked at the history, modern Americans often have the impression that all colonists at the time favored independence.

I’d argue that Americans see the Fourth of July—the holiday devoted to the U.S.’s birthday—as inevitable. Nothing was further from the truth. Independence was never in the cards when the battle with Britain began in 1775 at Lexington and Concord. Hogeland, a masterful historian and writer, brings to life the drama that led to the vote to break with Britain’s monarch.

Focusing tightly on the spring and summer of 1776, Declaration shows the clashing temperaments of all the players, how they tried to outmaneuver each other, but ultimately came together for the good of a nascent nation. We also learn a good deal about how ordinary citizens reacted to the news of the Declaration.

By William Hogeland,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is the rambunctious story of how America came to declare independence in Philadelphia in 1776. As late as that May, the Continental Congress had no plans to break away from England. Troops under General George Washington had been fighting the British for nearly a year—yet in Philadelphia a mighty bloc known as "reconciliationists," led by the influential Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, strove to keep America part of the British Empire.

But a cadre of activists—led by the mysterious Samuel Adams of Massachusetts and assisted by his nervous cousin John—plotted to bring about American independence. Their audacious secret plan proposed overturning…

Book cover of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence

Joseph D'Agnese Why did I love this book?

The U.S. Constitution is the document that spells out the framework of American government. In contrast, the Declaration is something of a “one and done” document; interesting for historical reasons, but not relevant to modern governance.

And yet…of the two documents, the Declaration of Independence has a stronger hold on American emotions. Both documents have their own holiday, but not many Americans celebrate Constitution Day, which falls on each September 17th, reserving fireworks and outdoor meals for the Fourth of July instead.

Why? According to the late MIT historian Pauline Maier, the Declaration has become a kind of sacred artifact that spells out the nation’s moral beliefs, even if those beliefs boil down to a single sentence about equality, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Maier shows us how that transformation occurred. She walks us through many other obscure government documents during the Founding Era to reveal how key concepts and language from earlier writers influenced the choices Thomas Jefferson made while writing the Declaration.

Then, when she leaps to the 19th century, she shows how the Declaration shaped Lincoln’s thinking, cementing the Declaration as an expression of the American mind, even if the document was never intended for such a heavy burden.

By Pauline Maier,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Pauline Maier shows us the Declaration as both the defining statement of our national identity and the moral standard by which we live as a nation. It is truly "American Scripture," and Maier tells us how it came to be -- from the Declaration's birth in the hard and tortuous struggle by which Americans arrived at Independence to the ways in which, in the nineteenth century, the document itself became sanctified.

Maier describes the transformation of the Second Continental Congress into a national government, unlike anything that preceded or followed it, and with more authority than the colonists would ever…

Book cover of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality

Joseph D'Agnese Why did I love this book?

Harvard professor and MacArthur fellow Allen dissects the Declaration word by word to help us understand its importance.

Her central thesis: we cannot have an American republic devoted to liberty without equality. And if that is so, then isn’t our job to somehow live up to the promise of the Declaration? In some ways, this is a very personal book. In unfussy prose, she tells us how she teaches the Declaration to her students and how they are often transformed by these 1,337 words that they would never have bothered to read if they didn’t take her class.

I would argue most Americans have never read them either (nor the U.S. Constitution, for that matter), but I think after hearing Allen’s arguments, you will be moved to do so.

By Danielle Allen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Our Declaration as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Featured on the front page of the New York Times, Our Declaration is already regarded as a seminal work that reinterprets the promise of American democracy through our founding text. Combining a personal account of teaching the Declaration with a vivid evocation of the colonial world between 1774 and 1777, Allen, a political philosopher renowned for her work on justice and citizenship reveals our nation's founding text to be an animating force that not only changed the world more than two-hundred years ago, but also still can. Challenging conventional wisdom, she boldly makes the case that the Declaration is a…

Book cover of The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence

Joseph D'Agnese Why did I love this book?

This is a great book for kids! With charming illustrations by Michael McCurdy, The Signers tells the personal story of every signer in a way that makes the story behind the Fourth of July engaging for young readers.

Fradin also knows just how to explain complicated issues such as slavery, or matters surrounding 18th-century life that would be lost on most adults, let alone kids. Now yes, the book is intended for readers in grades 4 through 7, but I think it is a fine jumping-off point for teachers and homeschoolers looking for short biographical readings that shed light what life was like for these men and their families during a pivotal time in American history.

By Dennis Brindell Fradin, Michael McCurdy (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Signers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

For more than 225 years these words have inspired men and women in countries the world over to risk everything in pursuit of these lofty ideals. When they first appeared in our nation's birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence, they were a call to action for a colony on the brink of rebellion. The 56 men who dared to sign their names to this revolutionary…

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Magical Disinformation

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Book cover of Magical Disinformation

Lachlan Page Author Of Magical Disinformation

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Why am I passionate about this?

I lived in Latin America for six years, working as a red cross volunteer, a volcano hiking guide, a teacher, and an extra in a Russian TV series (in Panama). Having travelled throughout the region and returning regularly, I’m endlessly fascinated by the culture, history, politics, languages, and geography. Parallel to this, I enjoy reading and writing about the world of international espionage. Combining the two, and based on my own experience, I wrote my novel, Magical Disinformation, a spy novel set in Colombia. While there is not a huge depth of spy novels set in Latin America, I’ve chosen five of my favourites spy books set in the region.

Lachlan's book list on spy books set in Latin America

What is my book about?

This book is a spy novel with a satirical edge which will take you on a heart-pumping journey through the streets, mountains, jungles, and beaches of Colombia. Our Man in Havana meets A Clear and Present Danger.

Magical Disinformation

By Lachlan Page,

What is this book about?

In the era of ‘fake news’ in the land of magical realism, fiction can be just as dangerous as the truth... Discover Lachlan Page’s Magical Disinformation: a spy novel with a satirical edge set amongst the Colombian peace process. Described by one reviewer as “Our Man in Havana meets A Clear and Present Danger.”

Oliver Jardine is a spy in Colombia, enamoured with local woman Veronica Velasco.

As the Colombian government signs a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, Her Majesty’s Government decides a transfer is in order to focus on more pertinent theatres of operation.

In a desperate attempt…

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Interested in the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and musical theatre?

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