The best books on the surprising world of the early American Republic

Carolyn Eastman Author Of The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity
By Carolyn Eastman

The Books I Picked & Why

Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America

By Rachel Hope Cleves

Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America

Why this book?

This book tells an incredible story—not just of a same-sex marriage in the early 19th century, which would be remarkable enough, but also of the extent to which this couple was accepted by their community and family. Cleves found a motherlode of diaries and letters that document their lives together, their ability to earn a living during an era when most women relied on male breadwinners, their mutual love of reading and writing poetry, and the ways they sought to reconcile their love with their religious faith. I can’t emphasize enough how many times I paused to marvel at what Cleves had found in her research, and the care with which she reconstructed the lives of these two women who loved one another.


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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Why this book?

Gordon-Reed is a masterful historian and nowhere is that more evident than in this exceptional, prizewinning book that explores the complexities of freedom and slavery during the early Republic. She traces the stories of several generations of this family, including the stories of Sally Hemings and her brother James, who together lived with Jefferson in Paris during the 1780s, a place where they might have obtained their freedom, albeit likely at the cost of never returning to the rest of their family in Virginia. But some of the most fascinating and surprising elements of the book touch on many other family members and the family’s reputation at Monticello as the first family of enslaved people. Gordon-Reed’s achievement with this book cannot be overstated; it is a beautifully written and provocative work.


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The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862

By Carol Sheriff

The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862

Why this book?

The Artificial River is so well-written, and features so many surprising and illuminating insights about early America, that I have assigned it many times in undergraduate classes. Sheriff speaks trenchantly about the concept of progress that inspired—and continues to inspire—so many of us. Yet by looking at how that concept played out over the course of the building of the Erie Canal, one of the most massive public works projects of the early Republic, she also shows the ways that Americans’ views of the common good were transformed. In a series of brilliantly executed chapters, Sheriff demonstrates the extent to which Americans’ embrace of market capitalism undermined their commitments to the good of all, and their willingness to accept that some of their fellow citizens would live in permanent poverty. It is a book that speaks as much to contemporary ideas about progress and self-determination as to those ideas in the nineteenth century.


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The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

By Patricia Cline Cohen

The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

Why this book?

The Murder of Helen Jewett starts from a provocative place: the gory murder of a beautiful young woman working in the sex trade in 1830s New York City. But from there, the book goes in a series of fascinating directions, in part because the newspapers of the day turned the story into an early version of tabloid reporting—inventing the details they felt might serve best to sell papers. And when the suspect faced a court trial for the murder, the wild speculation began again. Cohen does more than unpack the layers of exaggerated reportage; she also brings to life the world of the early American sex trade, the role of the media in fomenting a fascination with that trade, and the ways that the law and print media evolved alongside one another, often caring less about seeking justice than confirming cultural stereotypes. Best of all, this book reads like a novel.


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Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution

By Susan Juster

Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution

Why this book?

We often think of the Age of Revolutions as linked to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and science. But as Juster demonstrates in this fascinating book, it was also an age of prophecy. If they were sometimes dismissed as crazy, hundreds of male and female prophets found significant followers during the 1790s and early 1800s—followers who saw in those prophetic visions inspired ways to live in and face the challenges of a growing democratic society. Even those of us who knew about some of the ecstatic religious practices of the Second Great Awakening found ourselves marveling at Juster’s recapturing of a world of visionaries during an Age of Reason. Ultimately, she inspires us to connect the emerging democratization of the early nineteenth century to the profusion of charismatic and sometimes unsettling religious leaders. A wonderful piece of scholarship that is also a dream to read.


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