The best books on the fascinating families of America’s founders

Why am I passionate about this?

As a child, I loved reading books about time travel, and now as a historian, I do a sort of time travel for my job. I have always been especially drawn to reading women’s correspondence, particularly when the women involved were pushing against gender roles and finding ways to access political power. I approach doing history as if it’s an ethnography of a group of people with entirely different beliefs, norms, and even emotions from us today; after all, the past is a foreign country. I’m especially intrigued by uncovering how personal relationships worked in the past and how relationships with political figures allowed family and friends to access power.


I wrote...

First Family: George Washington's Heirs and the Making of America

By Cassandra Good,

Book cover of First Family: George Washington's Heirs and the Making of America

What is my book about?

In First Family, readers meet the children George Washington helped raise and trace their complicated roles in American history. The children of Martha Washington’s son by her first marriage—Eliza, Patty, Nelly, and Wash Custis—were born into life in the public eye. Raised in the country’s first “first family,” they remained well-known as Washington’s family and keepers of his legacy throughout their lives. The Custises used Washington to enhance their own power and status. As enslavers committed to the American empire, the Custis family embodied the failures of the American experiment that finally exploded into civil war. First Family brings new focus and attention to this surprisingly neglected aspect of George Washington’s life and legacy. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Washingtons: George and Martha: Partners in Friendship and Love

Cassandra Good Why did I love this book?

The story of Martha and George Washington’s marriage is a hard one to tell because almost none of their correspondence survives, but Fraser pieces together a rich story that shows the evolving love story of this famous couple. She makes clear that Martha—both her wealth and her character—was fundamental to making George Washington into the famous general and president he became.

By Flora Fraser,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In these pages, acclaimed historian Flora Fraser unfurls the story of George and Martha, brilliantly narrating the lives of an extraordinarily dedicated, accomplished, and historic couple. When they married in colonial Virginia in 1759, he was an awkward but ambitious young officer, she, a graceful, wealthy young widow. They were devoted to one another, and George was as a father to Martha’s children by her first husband. She endowed Washington with the confidence—and resources—that would aid him when elected commander-in-chief of the Continental army. During the war, Martha resolutely supported her husband, ‘the General,’ joining him every winter in headquarters;…


Book cover of Abigail Adams: A Life

Cassandra Good Why did I love this book?

Abigail Adams comes to life here in ways no previous books have captured: her wit, business acumen, and political power are woven together in a compelling story.

As the wife of one president and mother of another, Abigail’s power and influence are on full display, and defied gender norms. It’s hard not to come away from Holton’s book admiring the woman John Adams sometimes called “Presidante.”

By Woody Holton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this new, vivid, nuanced portrait, now in paperback, prize-winning historian Woody Holton uses original sources and letters for the first time in a sweeping reinterpretation of Adams's life story and of women's roles in the creation of the republic.

In this vivid new biography of Abigail Adams, the most illustrious woman of the founding era, Bancroft Award–winning historian Woody Holton offers a sweeping reinterpretation of Adams’s life story and of women’s roles in the creation of the republic.

Using previously overlooked documents from numerous archives, Abigail Adams shows that the wife of the second president of the United States…


Book cover of Jefferson's Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America

Cassandra Good Why did I love this book?

Kerrison brings careful scholarly research and even detective work to this fluidly-written story of Jefferson’s two white daughters, Martha and Maria Jefferson, and one Black daughter, Harriet Hemings. The book offers a more detailed chronicle of Martha and Maria, but Kerrison reveals for the reader her search for what happened to Harriet after she left Monticello and why that story ultimately remains a mystery.

By Catherine Kerrison,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Jefferson's Daughters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The remarkable untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s three daughters—two white and free, one black and enslaved—and the divergent paths they forged in a newly independent America
 
FINALIST FOR THE GEORGE WASHINGTON PRIZE • “Beautifully written . . . To a nuanced study of Jefferson’s two white daughters, Martha and Maria, [Kerrison] innovatively adds a discussion of his only enslaved daughter, Harriet Hemings.”—The New York Times Book Review

Thomas Jefferson had three daughters: Martha and Maria by his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and Harriet by his slave Sally Hemings. Although the three women shared a father, the similarities end there. Martha…


Book cover of A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

Cassandra Good Why did I love this book?

Allgor is an expert on women’s important role in building political society in the founding era, and in this compelling biography, she places Dolley Madison at the center of that story.

Indeed, Madison lived in the nation’s capital until 1849, giving her a decades-long career as a prominent figure in society and political operative. James Madison’s presidency was truly a partnership with his wife, as her charismatic sociability complemented his quiet, reserved demeanor. 

By Catherine Allgor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An extraordinary American comes to life in this vivid, groundbreaking portrait of the early days of the republic--and the birth of modern politics

When the roar of the Revolution had finally died down, a new generation of American politicians was summoned to the Potomac to assemble the nation's newly minted capital. Into that unsteady atmosphere, which would soon enough erupt into another conflict with Britain in 1812, Dolley Madison arrived, alongside her husband, James. Within a few years, she had mastered both the social and political intricacies of the city, and by her death in 1849 was the most celebrated…


Book cover of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Cassandra Good Why did I love this book?

Annette Gordon-Reed’s work has reshaped historians’ understanding of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Sally Hemings.

This expansive and prize-winning biography goes beyond that pair to offer a sweeping study of the Hemings family over the course of a century. Enslaved people left few written records, but Gordon-Reed teases out the family’s story with care and creativity. While Thomas Jefferson never publicly recognized the Hemingses as his family, this book shows that he cannot be fully understood without them. 

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Why should I read it?

6 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.


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I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

Book cover of I Meant to Tell You

Fran Hawthorne Author Of I Meant to Tell You

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Museum guide Foreign language student Runner Community activist Former health-care journalist

Fran's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not a criminal, she stumbles into other secrets that will challenge what she thought she knew about her own family, her friend, Russ—and herself.

I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

What is this book about?

When Miranda’s fiancé, Russ, is being vetted for his dream job in the U.S. attorney’s office, the couple joke that Miranda’s parents’ history as antiwar activists in the Sixties might jeopardize Russ’s security clearance. In fact, the real threat emerges when Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier—an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

Miranda tries to explain that she was only helping her best friend, in the midst of a nasty custody battle, take her daughter to visit her parents in Israel. As Miranda struggles to prove that she’s not…


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