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.

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The books I picked & why

The 1619 Project

By Nikole Hannah-Jones,

Book cover of The 1619 Project

Why did I love 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.

By Nikole Hannah-Jones,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The 1619 Project as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAACP IMAGE AWARD WINNER • A dramatic expansion of a groundbreaking work of journalism, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story offers a profoundly revealing vision of the American past and present.

FINALIST FOR THE KIRKUS PRIZE • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Washington Post, NPR, Esquire, Marie Claire, Electric Lit, Ms. magazine, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist

In late August 1619, a ship arrived in the British colony of Virginia bearing a cargo of twenty to thirty enslaved people from Africa. Their arrival led to the barbaric and unprecedented system of…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Noah Feldman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

An innovative account of Abraham Lincoln, constitutional thinker and doer.

When Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency in 1861, the United States’ constitutional arrangements were not the ones we know today. It was widely believed that the federal government could not use armed force to prevent a state from seceding. It was also assumed that it had no authority over slavery in states where the institution existed and that basic civil liberties could not be suspended during a rebellion without the consent of Congress. As president, Lincoln broke decisively with all these precedents,…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Woody Holton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A "deeply researched and bracing retelling" (Annette Gordon-Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian) of the American Revolution, showing how the Founders were influenced by overlooked Americans-women, Native Americans, African Americans, and religious dissenters.

Using more than a thousand eyewitness records, Liberty Is Sweet is a "spirited account" (Gordon S. Wood, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution) that explores countless connections between the Patriots of 1776 and other Americans whose passion for freedom often brought them into conflict with the Founding Fathers. "It is all one story," prizewinning historian Woody Holton writes.

Holton describes the origins and crucial battles…

Book cover of America's Constitution: A Biography

Why did I love 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. 

By Akhil Reed Amar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked America's Constitution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In America’s Constitution, one of this era’s most accomplished constitutional law scholars, Akhil Reed Amar, gives the first comprehensive account of one of the world’s great political texts. Incisive, entertaining, and occasionally controversial, this “biography” of America’s framing document explains not only what the Constitution says but also why the Constitution says it.

We all know this much: the Constitution is neither immutable nor perfect. Amar shows us how the story of this one relatively compact document reflects the story of America more generally. (For example, much of the Constitution, including the glorious-sounding “We the People,” was lifted from existing…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Eric Foner,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Declaration of Independence announced equality as an American ideal but it took the Civil War and the adoption of three constitutional amendments to establish that ideal as law. The Reconstruction amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and the equal protection of the law, and equipped black men with the right to vote. By grafting the principle of equality onto the Constitution, the amendments marked the second founding of the United States.

Eric Foner conveys the dramatic origins of these revolutionary amendments and explores the court decisions that then narrowed and nullified the rights guaranteed in these amendments. Today, issues…

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Interested in the Constitution of the United States, civil rights, and the American Revolution?

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