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

Who am I?

I’d love to see more readers explore the surprising world of the early American republic beyond stories about presidents and the Founders—in part because that history can be so illuminating about our own world. Originally from California, I’m now a professor in the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of the prizewinning A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution. I’m now starting work on a new project on the yellow fever epidemics that struck New York City during the 1790s, a piece of which appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in March 2021 and the Intervals podcast produced by the Organization of American Historians.

I wrote...

The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity

By Carolyn Eastman,

Book cover of The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity

What is my book about?

When James Ogilvie arrived in America in 1793, he was a deeply ambitious but impoverished teacher. By the time he returned to Britain in 1817, he had become a bona fide celebrity known simply as Mr. O, counting the nation’s leading politicians and intellectuals among his admirers. And then, like so many meteoric American luminaries afterward, he fell from grace.

The Strange Genius of Mr. O is at once the biography of a remarkable performer—a gaunt Scottish orator who appeared in a toga—and a story of the United States during the founding era. Ogilvie's career featured many of the hallmarks of celebrity we recognize from later eras: glamorous friends, eccentric clothing, scandalous religious views, narcissism, and even an alarming drug habit. Yet he captivated audiences with his eloquence and inaugurated a golden age of American oratory. Examining his roller-coaster career and the Americans who admired (or hated) him, this fascinating book renders a vivid portrait of the United States in the midst of invention.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By R. A. Sinn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Charity and Sylvia is the intimate history of two ordinary women who lived in an extraordinary same-sex marriage during the early nineteenth century. Based on diaries, letters, and poetry, among other original documents, the research traces the women's lives in sharp detail. Charity Bryant was born in 1777 to a consumptive mother who died a month later. Raised in Massachusetts, Charity developed into a brilliant and strong-willed woman with a passion for her
own sex. After being banished from her family home by her father at age twenty, she traveled throughout Massachusetts, working as a teacher, making intimate female friends,…

Book cover of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Why did I love 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.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Carol Sheriff,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The story of the Eric Canal is the story of industrial and economic progress between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The Artificial River reveals the human dimension of the story of the Erie Canal. Carol Sheriff's extensive, innovative archival research shows the varied responses of ordinary people-farmers, businessmen, government officials, tourists, workers-to this major environmental, social, and cultural transformation in the early life of the Republic.

Winner of Best Manuscript Award from the New York State Historical Association

“The Artificial River is deeply researched, its arguments are both subtle and clear, and it is written with grace…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Patricia Cline Cohen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett.

From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. She invented life stories for herself that helped her build a sympathetic clientele among New York City's elite, and she further captivated her customers through her seductive letters, which mixed…

Book cover of Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution

Why did I love 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.

By Susan Juster,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The age of revolution, in which kings were dethroned, radical ideals of human equality embraced, and new constitutions written, was also the age of prophecy. Neither an archaic remnant nor a novel practice, prophecy in the eighteenth century was rooted both in the primitive worldview of the Old Testament and in the vibrant intellectual environment of the philosophers and their political allies, the republicans. In Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution, Susan Juster examines the culture of prophecy in Great Britain and the United States from 1765 to 1815 side by side with the intellectual and political transformations…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in slaves, murder, and murder mystery?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about slaves, murder, and murder mystery.

Slaves Explore 89 books about slaves
Murder Explore 828 books about murder
Murder Mystery Explore 438 books about murder mystery