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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Why 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By deftly exploring the nuances and silences in historical documents, Jefferson, Annette Gordon-Reed recovers the intertwined lives of an enslaved family with their masters in the Wayles, Jefferson, and Randolph clans.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.


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Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding

By David C. Hendrickson

Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding

Why 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.


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

By Claudio Saunt

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

Why 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. 


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

By Benjamin Reiss

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

Why 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. 


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

By Amy S. Greenberg

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

Why 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.    


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