The best books on the early United States

Alan Taylor Author Of American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850
By Alan Taylor

Who am I?

Alan Taylor is a professor of history at the University of Virginia, where he holds the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair, he has published nine books, including William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early Republic, and The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for American history. In May, Norton will publish his tenth book, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.

I wrote...

American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850

By Alan Taylor,

Book cover of American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850

What is my book about?

By examining the development of the United States, with an emphasis on territorial expansion and relations with Canada, Haiti, Mexico, and Native Americans, Taylor upends the traditional story of a young nation confidently seizing a continent to realize a “manifest destiny.”

Instead, the United States began as a fragile and divided union of states contending with neighboring empires and rival republics on the North American continent. American leaders dreaded the independence of Native peoples and the resistance of enslaved people as internal weaknesses that foreign powers could exploit. In a relentless, but never fulfilled, search for greater security, Americans expanded across a continent by fighting to conquer Natives, Mexicans, and Canadians. During the 1840s, the victors seemed to have won continental domination only to discover that they still did not trust one another – and so they divided in a destructive Civil War waged over the fate of the recent conquests.  That destructive conflict culminated a history of internal divisions woven into the original fabric of the new nation.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Why did I love this book?

By deftly exploring the nuances and silences in historical documents, Jefferson, Annette Gordon-Reed recovers the intertwined lives of an enslaved family with their masters in the Wayles, Jefferson, and Randolph clans. Attending to the parents, siblings, and children of Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed offers a master class in how to find the traumas and triumphs of people whose slavery enabled others to enjoy fame, fortune, and power. Thomas Jefferson appears on a more human scale as dependent on a clan of enslaved people for material and emotional comfort.

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Hemingses of Monticello as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This epic work-named a best book of the year by the Washington Post, Time, the Los Angeles Times, Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a notable book by the New York Times-tells the story of the Hemingses, whose close blood ties to our third president had been systematically expunged from American history until very recently. Now, historian and legal scholar Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family's dispersal after Jefferson's death in 1826.

Book cover of Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding

Why did I love this book?

David Hendrickson recovers the paradoxical origins of our nation in the contentious diversity of citizens who identified with their state rather than as Americans, and who dreaded those of other states as potential enemies. To avoid the bloodbaths of European-style wars in America, the founders framed a union of states meant to provide a framework for mutual peace. But they also generated a recurrent political struggle between those who feared the Union as too strong, as potential tyrannical, and those who wished to perfect that Union as a true nation.

By David C. Hendrickson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

That New England might invade Virginia is inconceivable today. But interstate rivalries and the possibility of intersectional war loomed large in the thinking of the Framers who convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to put on paper the ideas that would bind the federal union together. At the end of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin rejoiced that the document would "astonish our enemies, who are waiting to hear with confidence . . . that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats." Usually dismissed as hyperbole, this and similar…

Book cover of Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory

Why did I love this book?

With deep research and moral clarity, Saunt vividly narrates the American efforts to force Native peoples to forsake their homelands and accept reservations beyond the Mississippi River.  He uncovers the eloquence of Native leaders exposing the hypocrisy of Americans who broke the promises of repeated treaties. And Saunt offers a chilling accounting of the thousands of dead produced by violent dislocation from hearth and home. 

By Claudio Saunt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In May 1830, the United States launched an unprecedented campaign to expel 80,000 Native Americans from their eastern homelands to territories west of the Mississippi River. In a firestorm of fraud and violence, thousands of Native Americans lost their lives, and thousands more lost their farms and possessions. The operation soon devolved into an unofficial policy of extermination, enabled by US officials, southern planters, and northern speculators. Hailed for its searing insight, Unworthy Republic transforms our understanding of this pivotal period in American history.

Book cover of The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America

Why did I love this book?

Reiss tells the revealing story of Joice Heth, an enslaved woman presented by the showman P. T. Barnum as 161 years old and the childhood nanny of George Washington. Although less than half that age and unknown to Washington, Heth had survived a hard life in Kentucky by reinventing herself with inventive tales allegedly about the greatest American hero. By overtly asserting Heth’s reliability and anonymously casting it in doubt, Barnum appealed to the very American desire by people to test their own credulity by eyeing the controversy. When she died, Barnum reaped his biggest payday by charging admission for thousands to watch an autopsy that revealed that she was in her seventies. 

By Benjamin Reiss,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Showman and the Slave as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this compelling story about one of the nineteenth century's most famous Americans, Benjamin Reiss uses P. T. Barnum's Joice Heth hoax to examine the contours of race relations in the antebellum North. Barnum's first exhibit as a showman, Heth was an elderly enslaved woman who was said to be the 161-year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington. Seizing upon the novelty, the newly emerging commercial press turned her act--and especially her death--into one of the first media spectacles in American history.

In piecing together the fragmentary and conflicting evidence of the event, Reiss paints a picture of people…

Book cover of A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico

Why did I love this book?

Challenging heroic legends, Greenberg thoroughly reveals the horrors of a conflict that devastated a neighboring people struggling to sustain their own republic. To increase the United States by a third, President Polk provoked a war that outraged his leading generals and political critics as a betrayal of American principles. By the end of the conflict, Polk had alienated even his political allies and acquired a blood-stained territory that would trigger, a dozen years later, a Civil War that nearly destroyed the United States.    

By Amy S. Greenberg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Our 1846 war with Mexico was a blatant land grab provoked by President James Polk. And while it secured the entire Southwest and California for America, it also exacerbated regional tensions over slavery, created the first significant antiwar movement in America, and helped lead the nation into civil war. A Wicked War is the definitive history of this conflict that turned America into a continental power. Amy Greenberg describes the battles between American and Mexican armies, but also delineates the political battles between Democrats and Whigs—the former led by the ruthless Polk, the latter by the charismatic Henry Clay, and…

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