The best books on the Revolutionary War (and why the British lost it)

Jack N. Rakove Author Of Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution
By Jack N. Rakove

Who am I?

I became a historian of the American Revolution back in the early 1970s and have been working on that subject ever since. Most of my writings pivot on national politics, the origins of the Constitution, and James Madison. But explaining why the Revolution occurred and why it took the course it did remain subjects that still fascinate me.


I wrote...

Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

By Jack N. Rakove,

Book cover of Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

What is my book about?

Today we have an ongoing and contentious debate about whether the true meaning of the Constitution should rest on the original intentions of its framers, the original understandings of its ratifiers, or simply the original linguistic meaning of its keywords and phrases. I first started thinking about the problem in the early 1970s, during the debates over the War Powers Act and Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

I thought that asking what the Constitution originally meant was inherently a historical question. Historians have an opportunity and an obligation to explain how these questions are best answered. That’s what Original Meanings sets out to do.

The books I picked & why

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A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence

By John Shy,

Book cover of A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence

Why this book?

This is a classic and provocative set of essays by an eminent historian who asked whether and in what ways the War for Independence resembled modern revolutionary wars. It led every serious historian of the Revolution to realize that the war was not simply a conflict between armies but a political struggle to secure the loyalty of the civilian population.

A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence

By John Shy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Americans like to think of themselves as a peaceful and peace-loving people, and in remembering their own revolutionary past, American historians have long tended to focus on colonial origins and Constitutional aftermath, neglecting the fact that the American Revolution was a long, hard war. In this book, John Shy shifts the focus to the Revolutionary War and explores the ways in which the experience of that war was entangled with both the causes and the consequences of the Revolution itself. This is not a traditional military chronicle of battles and campaigns, but a series of essays that recapture the social,…


The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire

By Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy,

Book cover of The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire

Why this book?

The vast majority of books on the Revolutionary War are written by Americans, and they predictably focus on the conflict from the Patriot side. But throughout the war, the strategic initiative rested with Britain, not the United States. Through a series of brilliant biographical chapters, O’Shaughnessy traces the history of the war and the evolution of British strategy, and its ultimate failure, from the imperial side.

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire

By Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Men Who Lost America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The loss of America was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the powerful British Empire. Common wisdom has held that incompetent military commanders and political leaders in Britain must have been to blame, but were they? This intriguing book makes a different argument. Weaving together the personal stories of ten prominent men who directed the British dimension of the war, historian Andrew O'Shaughnessy dispels the incompetence myth and uncovers the real reasons that rebellious colonials were able to achieve their surprising victory. In interlinked biographical chapters, the author follows the course of the war from the perspectives of King George…


Washington's Crossing

By David Hackett Fischer,

Book cover of Washington's Crossing

Why this book?

We think of the American victories at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781 as the decisive battles of the war (and so, in a sense, they were). But in this Pulitzer Prize winner, Fischer makes a strong case that George Washington’s surprising victories at Trenton and Princeton were just as momentous, keeping “the Cause” alive at a moment when the Continental Army was on the verge of dissolution. Fischer provides a vivid account of the flow of battle and the key decisions that gave the Americans their advantage.

Washington's Crossing

By David Hackett Fischer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Six months after the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was all but lost. A powerful British force had routed the Americans at New York, occupied three colonies, and advanced within sight of Philadelphia.

Yet, as David Hackett Fischer recounts in this riveting history, George Washington-and many other Americans-refused to let the Revolution die. On Christmas night, as a howling nor'easter struck the Delaware Valley, he led his men across the river and attacked the exhausted Hessian garrison at Trenton, killing or capturing nearly a thousand men. A second battle of Trenton followed within days. The Americans held off a…


The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War

By Wayne Bodle,

Book cover of The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War

Why this book?

The story of how the Continental Army suffered bitterly through the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge has been the subject of many books and the inspiration for many a patriotic myth. In this well-researched history, Bodle dispels many of those myths and carefully explains why the army had to stay so close to Philadelphia, when normally it would have moved further to the interior of Pennsylvania and sent many of its troops home for the winter. He provides a sophisticated account of the relationship between military needs and civilian politics, one that broadens our understanding of the Revolution.

The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War

By Wayne Bodle,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

2003 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Of the many dramatic episodes of the American Revolution, perhaps none is more steeped in legend than the Valley Forge winter. Paintings show Continentals huddled around campfires and Washington kneeling in the frozen woods, praying for his army's deliverance. To this day schoolchildren are taught that Valley Forge was the "turning point of the Revolution"-the event that transformed a ragged group of soldiers into a fighting army. But was Valley Forge really the "crucible of victory" it has come to represent in American history? Now, two hundred and twenty-five years later, Wayne Bodle has written…


Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It

By Larrie D. Ferreiro,

Book cover of Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It

Why this book?

Americans think of the Revolutionary War as a struggle for national liberation. But by 1778 it had become a broader conflict involving the three empires of western Europe. In this Pulitzer Prize Finalist book, Ferreiro restores the international dimensions of the conflict, deftly explaining how a conflict that began as a constitutional struggle within the British Empire escalated into a global war whose last battles would be fought in India.

Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It

By Larrie D. Ferreiro,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Pulitzer Prize Finalist in History

Winner of the Journal of the American Revolution 2016 Book of the Year Award

The remarkable untold story of how the American Revolution's success depended on substantial military assistance provided by France and Spain, and places the Revolution in the context of the global strategic interests of those nations in their fight against England. 
 
In this groundbreaking, revisionist history, Larrie Ferreiro shows that at the time the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord the colonists had little chance, if any, of militarily defeating the British. The nascent American nation had no navy, little…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the American Revolution, Pennsylvania, and France?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the American Revolution, Pennsylvania, and France.

The American Revolution Explore 111 books about the American Revolution
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