The best books on the USA in its formative years (1789-1845)

Who are we?

We have been researching and writing about the Early Republic since graduate school and began collaborating on the period with our first co-authored book, Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire. Though we have occasionally ventured beyond the enthralling events that occurred during those years, mainly by editing books on the Civil War and other topics, we always return to them with relish. We hope you will find the books on our list entertaining as well as informative, thus to whet your appetite for the sumptuous banquet that awaits!


We wrote...

Henry Clay: The Essential American

By David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler,

Book cover of Henry Clay: The Essential American

What is our book about?

He was the Great Compromiser, a canny and colorful legislator whose life mirrors the story of America from its founding until the eve of the Civil War. Speaker of the House, senator, secretary of state, five-time presidential candidate, and idol to the young Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay is captured in full at last in this rich and sweeping biography.

The authors reveal Clay’s tumultuous career in Washington, including his participation in the deadlocked election of 1824 that haunted him for the rest of his career, and shine new light on Clay’s marriage to plain, wealthy Lucretia Hart, a union that lasted fifty-three years and produced eleven children. Featuring an inimitable supporting cast including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay is beautifully written and replete with fresh anecdotes and insights. 

The Books I Picked & Why

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What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

By Daniel Walker Howe,

Book cover of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

Why this book?

A preeminent scholar of the period, Daniel Walker Howe brings his unique humor, insight, and compelling narrative style to the definitive book on the era. This Pulitzer Prize winning volume from the Oxford History of the United States series combines excellent scholarship with delightful storytelling (beginning with the title) to bring the Early Republic alive.


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

By Gordon S. Wood,

Book cover of Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815

Why this book?

Gordon Wood is the foremost authority on the American Revolution and the Founding. In his contribution to the Oxford History of the United States series, he provides a masterful introduction to the history of the Early Republic. Prodigious research and profound insights deriving from it will enlighten readers for generations.


Prelude to Civil War

By William W. Freehling,

Book cover of Prelude to Civil War

Why this book?

Though venerable, Freehling’s book remains the standard treatment of this early episode in America’s convulsive sectional crisis. Informed by impeccable research, Freehling depicts the growing tension that pitted hardline states’ rights advocates against resolute nationalists, almost to cause a civil war three decades before it finally happened. Vivid portrayals abound with numerous characters, including the volatile Andrew Jackson and the doctrinaire John C. Calhoun, brought to life in a gemstone of the narrative art.


The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt,

Book cover of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

Why this book?

A lifetime of research on and writing about the latter span of America’s formative years yield Michael Holt’s masterpiece, a detailed, lively look at the resurgence of federalist philosophy and its consequences. In a fascinating exposition, Holt fashions something resembling Shakespearean tragedy wherein the most well-intentioned politicians cannot stem the tide of sectionalism.


The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788 - 1800

By Stanley Elkins, Eric McKitrick,

Book cover of The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788 - 1800

Why this book?

Exhaustively researched, this books illuminates the brief time in early U.S. history when Federalism dominated American politics. It remains the standard source on the Federalists’ political philosophy, the understanding of which is crucial to comprehending everything political that follows it.