The best books to understand America

Kermit Roosevelt III Author Of The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America's Story
By Kermit Roosevelt III

Who am I?

I’ve always loved America and our Constitution. I went to law school, I clerked at the Supreme Court, and I ended up teaching Constitutional law at Penn. But as I learned more about the Constitution and our history, I realized that the story I’d absorbed growing up about what our values were and where they came from didn’t ring true. Things were a little more complicated. And so I did my own research. I read dozens of books, including the ones listed here. And in the end, I found a story that was both more true and more inspiring than the one we learned in school. 


I wrote...

The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America's Story

By Kermit Roosevelt III,

Book cover of The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America's Story

What is my book about?

There’s a story we tell ourselves about America: that our fundamental values were stated in the Declaration of Independence, fought for in the Revolution, and made law in the Constitution. And American history, we like to think, is a process of more fully realizing those founding values. 

But none of this is true. Our fundamental values come not from Founding America but from resistance to it. They were stated not in the Declaration but in the Gettysburg Address, fought for not in the Revolution but in the Civil War, and made law not in the original Constitution but in the very different Reconstruction Constitution. We modern Americans are the heirs not of Founding America but of the people who overthrow and destroyed that political order.

The books I picked & why

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The 1619 Project

By Nikole Hannah-Jones,

Book cover of The 1619 Project

Why this book?

You’ve probably heard a lot about this book—most of it coming from people who haven’t read it. The 1619 Project is not a condemnation of America. It’s a deeply patriotic history of how American values have been fought for through our history—by Americans, and also against Americans. Most of all it pulls back the curtain on the extent to which modern America even today is shaped by the legacy of slavery—something we all need to know.


The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America

By Noah Feldman,

Book cover of The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America

Why this book?

What happened to our Constitution during the Civil War? Noah Feldman argues that Lincoln, whose goal was to save the Union, had to break the Constitution to do so. But this rupture created the possibility of a new order. The original Constitution was filled with compromises, most notably between the supporters and opponents of slavery. But a broken document could be mended to eliminate those compromises and produce an anti-slavery Constitution.

I think this book is really insightful—it will change the way you think about what it means to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.


Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution

By Woody Holton,

Book cover of Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution

Why this book?

You know the standard stories of the Revolution, with heroes like George Washington and villains like Benedict Arnold. But Woody Holton shines a new light on America’s founding war. You’ll meet new heroes, and you’ll understand the old ones better. How does America start? And why? Here’s a whole new set of answers to complicate the ones you’ve learned.


America's Constitution: A Biography

By Akhil Reed Amar,

Book cover of America's Constitution: A Biography

Why this book?

There’s no one I like to read more about constitutional law than Akhil Amar. He has an incredible breadth of knowledge that’s matched by an amazing depth of insight. In this book, he goes through the constitution, clause by clause, and finds something new and unexpected to say about almost all of them. If you really want to understand the constitution, this is the definitive book. 


The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution

By Eric Foner,

Book cover of The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution

Why this book?

Eric Foner is our nation’s foremost historian of Reconstruction, the author of dozens of books and articles. This is my favorite—it takes the research and thought of a monumental career and packages it for maximum impact. In just over 200 pages, it takes you through the changes of the Civil War and Reconstruction and their relevance for America today. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in civil rights, the American Revolution, and African Americans?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about civil rights, the American Revolution, and African Americans.

Civil Rights Explore 92 books about civil rights
The American Revolution Explore 72 books about the American Revolution
African Americans Explore 403 books about African Americans

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, and Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 if you like this list.