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All American History Coverage

No one called it the “American Revolution” while it was happening. The British spoke of the American rebellion. Those protesting in the colonies merely called it “the Cause” and insisted they were not engaged in revolution. Even now, the question of whether it was a true revolution remains controversial.

Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities and events of the American Revolution from the perspectives of both England and the colonists in his eminently readable The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773–1783. Using rigorous scholarship, Ellis offers vivid portraits of and penetrating insights about this period in history, while challenging our conventional understandings of it.

For the British, Ellis argues, the defining issue was power, not money. Imposing new taxes on the colonies was a way to establish parliamentary sovereignty, not to reduce the debt they accumulated during the Seven Years’ War. Trade with the American colonies was lucrative for Britain, after all, and any taxation policy that put their trade relationship at risk would have been too costly.

Also counter to the narrative we usually hear, those early colonial Americans had a conservative character. From their perspective, the British were more revolutionary than they were. Britain was causing revolutionary change by taxing colonists without their consent, and even then, no American delegate to the first Continental Congress advocated for independence.

Likewise, John Trumbull’s famous painting, “The Declaration of Independence,” depicts an event that never happened. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original version on his own, then Congress made 85 specific changes to Jefferson’s draft, revising or deleting slightly more than 20% of the text. The final version was sent to the printer on July 4, and the printer put that date on the published version. Most delegates actually signed it on August 2, although there was no single signing day.

By the end of the war, a majority of Americans felt that the creation of a nation-state was a distortion of the Cause. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, among others, were outliers, not leaders of the dominant opinion.

This riveting, highly recommended book by one of America’s major historians will change how you see the American Revolution.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities and events of the American Revolution in The Cause.

As the familiar story goes, George Washington, the Revolutionary War’s iconic general, led the Colonies to an improbable victory over the crushing British monarchy and its oppressive taxation. But according to Nathaniel Philbrick in Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Washington’s real challenges as a leader began after that. With abolitionists to the north, enslavers to the south and anti-Federalists everywhere (even in his own Cabinet), Washington set out just months after his 1789 inauguration on an uncomfortable, arduous tour of the shaky new union he felt compelled to unite.

In the late summer of 2018, in a time hardly less politically fraught, Philbrick, his wife and their “red bushy-tailed Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever,” Dora, embarked from Washington’s Mount Vernon to follow in the former president’s footsteps. Inspired by Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck—who wrote, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”—Philbrick expected “a journey of quirky and lighthearted adventure” that instead “proved more unsettling and more unexpected than I ever could have imagined.”

Visiting the cities Washington once rode through on his white horse, or paraded through in a cream-colored carriage with two enslaved postillions, or strode into wearing a simple brown suit (the new president had a feel for political theater), Philbrick delivers the details. He explains how Washington became “the father of the American mule,” debunks myths about the first president’s wooden teeth and enriches facts with help from local archivists, librarians, curators, docents and even the descendants of those who were there. But Philbrick keeps one foot in, and a respectful perspective on, the present throughout, assessing hazards then—such as when Washington’s horses fell off a ferry—and now—such as when Philbrick’s own sailboat nearly capsized in a vicious storm on his way to Newport, Rhode Island.

When BookPage interviewed Philbrick in 2006 for Mayflower, his Pulitzer Prize history finalist, he said, “I think it’s really important that we see the past as a lived past rather than something that was fated to be.” With Travels With George, he succeeds again at this aim. Washington emerges as the complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader that his newborn country desperately needed. The quantity and quality of the details Philbrick gathers as he straddles past and present make this an extraordinary read.

As Nathaniel Philbrick retraces George Washington’s tour of the shaky new union, the first president emerges as a complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader.

In this engrossing biography, author and history podcaster Mike Duncan, who explored the Roman Republic in The Storm Before the Storm, illuminates the eventful life of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette is, of course, a popular hero of the American Revolution. Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution broadens our understanding of his engagement in other major political movements, as well, chronicling his role in the French Revolution and the toppling of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830.

At first glance, nothing in Lafayette’s early history suggests his future commitment to liberal ideals. Lafayette (1757–1834) was born Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier in Chavaniac, France. A son of the nobility, he lost his father when he was only 2, making him the sole heir to the family’s fortune. His mother’s death when he was 12 left him in the care of guardians who made many decisions for him, including arranging his marriage to Adrienne d’Ayen at age 16. They were a devoted couple until her death in 1807.

Duncan traces the origin of Lafayette’s embrace of liberty and equality to the summer of 1775, when he first learned of George Washington and the colonists’ struggles. Politics had cut short his career in the French army, so Lafayette decided to follow this new noble cause. He managed to become a major general in the Continental Army, and by age 24, he’d earned a stellar reputation on both sides of the Atlantic.

In detailing Lafayette’s long career, Duncan takes a measured approach to his subject, making excellent use of primary sources, especially letters. The author effectively balances Lafayette the man with Lafayette the public figure and helps delineate the relationship between the United States and France. 

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of A Hero of Two Worlds is Duncan’s exploration of Lafayette’s long and enduring popularity with Americans. (Unlike the French, the Americans never stopped loving him.) In 1824, Lafayette was invited for a visit by President James Monroe as the nation prepared for its 50th anniversary. Lafayette received a hero’s welcome, his presence reminding “local and state leaders they were a single nation with a shared past and collective future.”

Lafayette was a unique and unifying figure in American history, celebrated and revered by all political parties. As the United States approaches its 250th anniversary, Duncan’s impressive biography provides an insightful look at the American Revolution that can be appreciated by history lovers and general readers alike.

Mike Duncan’s insightful, impressive biography of the Marquis de Lafayette can be appreciated by history lovers and general readers alike.

These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.

A first-rate collection of essays gathered from Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines, Where I Come From: Stories From the Deep South by beloved memoirist Rick Bragg provides unique insights into the author’s corner of America. In these brief but powerful pieces, Bragg’s curiosity ranges far and wide as he reflects upon personal interests (pickup trucks, Southern cuisine, country music) and more universal matters (race and religion). Offering a kaleidoscopic look at the contemporary South, this colorful compilation is sure to inspire rousing discussions. 

David Gessner takes readers on an unforgettable tour of the nation’s monuments and parks in Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. Gessner gives an overview of the life and conservation work of Theodore Roosevelt and also shows how that work remains significant today as he visits Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and other sites. Subjects such as environmentalism and the future of public lands will get book clubs talking, and Gessner’s humor and incisive observations make him a wonderful traveling companion.

In Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood, Margot Mifflin delivers a fascinating historical survey of the Miss America pageant. Using the contest as a gauge of the advancement of women in America, Mifflin traces its evolution from a tourist attraction in Atlantic City in 1921 to a scholarship contest 100 years later. Her brisk, spirited narrative will entertain readers even as it presents fruitful material for discussion, with topics as wide-ranging as the #MeToo movement and the role of pageants in society.

Ojibwe author David Treuer gives a fresh account of Native American history in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Blending history and reportage with personal narrative, Treuer sets out to show that, contrary to the story told in books such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Indigenous culture was not destroyed in the late 19th century. Rather, it is still alive and vibrant today. Authoritative yet accessible, his book is rich in talking points, including contemporary depictions of Native Americans in popular culture and the impact of the American Indian Movement.

These four provocative nonfiction books offer fresh perspectives on our nation.

While Jimmy Carter’s post-presidential years have been exemplary, filled with significant humanitarian projects, his presidency is often regarded as a failure. Biographer and historian Kai Bird (American Prometheus) takes a fresh look in his balanced, detailed and very readable The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter.

Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, summed up their administration’s aims: “We obeyed the law, we told the truth, and we kept the peace.” Carter added, “We championed human rights.” His radical foreign policy initiatives and stellar domestic legislative record made his term an important one. Bird argues that Carter will come to be regarded as a significant president who was ahead of his time, despite the numerous missteps, misunderstandings and gossip treated as investigative reporting during his administration.

Carter was an outlier, “a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system.” Deeply religious and fiercely committed to the job, he was not an ideologue but a liberal Southern pragmatist, a fiscally conservative realist. He was perhaps our most enigmatic president, basically a nonpolitician who “refused to make us feel good about the country. He insisted on telling us what was wrong and what it would take to make things better,” Bird writes. 

Two of Carter’s most successful foreign policy initiatives, securing Senate ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty and personally brokering the Camp David Accords, wouldn’t have happened without his persistence. He also normalized relations with China, negotiated an arms control agreement with the USSR and influenced his successors and others around the world with his human rights emphasis.

Domestically, Carter’s controversial appointment of Paul Volcker to lead the Federal Reserve helped to heal the economy. He appointed a record number of women and Black Americans to federal jobs, including a substantial number of nominations to the federal bench. He and Mondale also expanded the role of the vice president, creating the modern vice presidency we know today.

His first major mistake was to appoint Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was always a disruptive force, as national security adviser. Others in Carter’s administration were not Washington insiders, and there was often friction between them and the press, members of Congress and others who were lifelong politicians.

This compelling portrait of Carter, a complex personality who was finally undone by the Iran hostage crisis, is an absorbing look at his life and administration that should be appreciated by anyone interested in American history.

Bird argues that Jimmy Carter’s radical foreign policy initiatives and stellar domestic legislative record make his presidency important, despite the missteps.

This engrossing new history of American women’s fight to gain autonomy over their sexuality and reproductive choices has a somewhat misleading title: The Man Who Hated Women: Sex, Censorship, and Civil Liberties in the Gilded Age. While Anthony Comstock, the “anti-vice” crusader and U.S. postal inspector, was without a doubt a man who hated women, his story is ultimately less significant than those of the brave women who stood up to him at the dawn of the 20th century.

Comstock’s drive to root out and destroy materials that he considered pornographic led to the passing of the Comstock Act in 1873, which made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials through the U.S. Postal Service. In his role as postal inspector, and inspired by a mania for “purity,” he defined pamphlets and books about contraception and family planning as “obscene” and subsequently hounded, prosecuted and even drove to suicide people who disseminated such information.

Bestselling author Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who opposed Comstock's efforts in The Man Who Hated Women. Suffragist Victoria C. Woodhull, free love advocate Angela Heywood, spiritualist Ida C. Craddock, abortionist Madame Restell, anarchist Emma Goldman and birth control defender Margaret Sanger are just a few who doggedly fought against the Comstock laws in order to bring information about sex and birth control to American women at the turn of the century.

Sohn has unearthed a wealth of vivid historic detail about these women’s resistance to Comstock’s censorship. Dr. Sara Chase, for example, not only sued Comstock for damaging her medical practice but named the vaginal syringe she sold to women for contraceptive douching the “Comstock syringe.” Craddock, who believed that sex was a deeply spiritual act, fought for the rights of Egyptian belly dancers to perform the “hoochie-coochie.”

Sohn places these mostly forgotten “sex radicals” at the center of the history of the women’s rights movement. That this battle continues in our own time makes The Man Who Hated Women all the more important and enlightening.

Amy Sohn vividly brings to life the activists who fought for American women’s right to information about sex and birth control at the dawn of the 20th century.

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