The best books on why slaveholders once dominated American politics

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm now retired. But like many historians of my generation, I've been lucky. Having gone to the University of California when there was no tuition and got through graduate school thanks to the GI Bill, I then taught history for five decades, briefly at San Francisco State College and the University of Hawaii, and for a long stretch at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. During those years, I wrote eight books, one was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and three won prizes—the Albert J. Beverage Award in 1970, the second-place Lincoln Prize in 2001, and the Langum Trust Prize in 2015. All but one deal with slavery and power.


I wrote...

The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780--1860

By Leonard L. Richards,

Book cover of The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780--1860

What is my book about?

This book basically tells the story of how slaveholders generally ran the country—and ran it for their own benefit—in the years before the Civil War. They held the presidency for 50 of its first 72 years, the Speaker’s office for 48 of the same years, along with 18 of the 31 Supreme Court seats. And the only men to be reelected president during those years were slaveholders—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson. All have been celebrated for their accomplishments. Usually left unsaid, however, was that the political system had been rigged in their favor. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South

Leonard L. Richards Why did I love this book?

This book came out in 1956 and almost instantly became a classic. It essentially ripped apart the claims put forth by southern historians that slavery was a benign institution and that slaves were better off in the Deep South than if they had remained in “savage” Africa. The book also made it clear that slavery, and not states’ rights, brought on the Civil War. But the main reason I chose this book is that I had the good fortune of taking Stampp’s lecture course when I was a freshman back in 1952. Were his lectures dazzling? No, they weren’t. But they covered what now appears in The 1619 Project. And the message was always clear: Don’t ever underestimate the negative impact of slavery. 

Book cover of American Slavery, American Freedom

Leonard L. Richards Why did I love this book?

How did the Virginia slaveholders somehow become the most celebrated spokesmen for “liberty” and “equality” in the Revolutionary Era even though they all owned hundreds of slaves? Morgan contends that to understand this paradox one has to go back to 17th-century colonial Virginia where American slavery and American freedom emerged together. Moreover, argues Morgan, those days not only had a profound effect on the American Revolution and the Early Republic, but on everything that has happened since.

By Edmund S. Morgan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked American Slavery, American Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the American Revolution, Virginians were the most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and quality. George Washington led the Americans in battle against British oppression. Thomas Jefferson led them in declaring independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration but also the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; they were elected to the presidency of the United States under that Constitution for thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of its existence. They were all slaveholders. In the new preface Edmund S. Morgan writes: "Human relations among us still suffer from the former enslavement of a large portion of our predecessors. The freedom…


Book cover of Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution: Ten Essays

Leonard L. Richards Why did I love this book?

This book is a corrective. For over two hundred years Americans have been taught that enlightened slaveholders—and especially Jefferson and Madison—were initially the main champions of liberty and equality. But was that truly what happened? This book offers a different take on that story, and in my mind it deserves more attention than it has received.

By Staughton Lynd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

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Book cover of Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson

Leonard L. Richards Why did I love this book?

This book also deserves more attention than it has received. And it, too, is a corrective. Taking to task a host of biographers and historians who have pretended that the “founding fathers” were blind to slavery and that slavery was a secondary issue in 1787, Finkleman contends that slavery was always a major bone of contention. Moreover, contends Finkelman, Thomas Jefferson was anything but an antislavery man. Instead, he was on the proslavery and anti-Black side in most controversies.

By Paul Finkelman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Slavery and the Founders, Paul Finkelman addresses a central issue of the American founding: how the first generation of leaders of the United States dealt with the profoundly important question of human bondage. The book explores the tension between the professed idea of America as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and the reality of the early American republic, reminding us of the profound and disturbing ways that slavery affected the U.S. Constitution and early American politics. It also offers the most important and detailed short critique of Thomas Jefferson's relationship to slavery available, while at the same time…


Book cover of American Taxation, American Slavery

Leonard L. Richards Why did I love this book?

How did the United States get the tax system we all hate? How did “trickle-down economics” come into being? And how do some billionaires get away without paying taxes? Much of all this, contends Einhorn, should be blamed on the nation’s leading slaveholders—and especially clever men like James Madison—who ran the country before the Civil War. And in this brilliant book, Einhorn explains how and why it was done. 

By Robin L. Einhorn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In "American Taxation, American Slavery", Robin Einhorn shows the deep, broad, and continuous influence of slavery on America's fear and loathing of taxes. From the earliest colonial times right up to the Civil War, slaveholding elites feared strong and democratic government as a threat to the institution of slavery. Einhorn reveals how the heated battles over taxation, the power to tax, and the distribution of tax burdens were rooted not in debates over personal liberty but rather in the rights of slaveholders to hold human beings as property. Along the way, she exposes the antidemocratic origins of the enduringly popular…


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By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

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Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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