American Revolution Reading List

Age of Revolutions Reading List #2

American Revolution 

Welcome to the second post in our Age of Revolutions reading list series. For this list, we asked Benjamin L. Carp and Michael McDonnell – two experts on the American Revolution – to list the top five books they would suggest to graduate students or colleagues entering into the field for the first time. Below you will find their lists, followed by brief descriptions culled from their book jackets. Comment below to make your own suggestions.

Suggested by Benjamin L. Carp, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Patrick Griffin, America’s Revolution

  • “In America’s Revolution, Patrick Griffin offers a new interpretation, narrative, and historical synthesis of America’s most formative period. Exploring the American Revolution from global, Atlantic, and continental perspectives, Griffin focuses on how men and women in local contexts struggled to imagine new ideas of sovereignty as British authority collapsed. He examines the relationship between ideas and social tensions, the War of Independence, the roles of the founders, and the struggles and triumphs of those on the margins.”

Eliga Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire

  • “As Eliga Gould shows in this reappraisal of American history, the Revolution was an international transformation of the first importance. To conform to the public law of Europe’s imperial powers, Americans crafted a union nearly as centralized as the one they had overthrown, endured taxes heavier than any they had faced as British colonists, and remained entangled with European Atlantic empires long after the Revolution ended. No factor weighed more heavily on Americans than the legally plural Atlantic where they hoped to build their empire. Gould follows the region’s transfiguration from a fluid periphery with its own rules and norms to a place where people of all descriptions were expected to abide by the laws of Western Europe—’civilized’ laws that precluded neither slavery nor the dispossession of Native Americans.”

Barbara Clark Smith, The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America

  • “The Freedoms We Lost challenges the unquestioned assumption that the American patriots simply introduced freedom where the king had once reigned. Rather, Smith shows that they relied on colonial-era traditions of political participation to drive the Revolution forward—and eventually, betrayed these same traditions as leading patriots gravitated toward “monied men” and elites who would limit the role of common men in the new democracy. By the end of the 1780s, she shows, Americans discovered that forms of participation once proper to subjects of Britain were inappropriate—even impermissible—to citizens of the United States.”

Andrew O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

  • The loss of America was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the powerful British Empire. Common wisdom has held that incompetent military commanders and political leaders in Britain must have been to blame, but were they? This intriguing book makes a different argument. Weaving together the personal stories of ten prominent men who directed the British dimension of the war, historian Andrew O’Shaughnessy dispels the incompetence myth and uncovers the real reasons that rebellious colonials were able to achieve their surprising victory. In interlinked biographical chapters, the author follows the course of the war from the perspectives of King George III, Prime Minister Lord North, military leaders including General Burgoyne, the Earl of Sandwich, and others who, for the most part, led ably and even brilliantly. Victories were frequent, and in fact the British conquered every American city at some stage of the Revolutionary War. Yet roiling political complexities at home, combined with the fervency of the fighting Americans, proved fatal to the British war effort. The book concludes with a penetrating assessment of the years after Yorktown, when the British achieved victories against the French and Spanish, thereby keeping intact what remained of the British Empire.

 Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

  • “Independence Lost reveals that individual motives counted as much as the ideals of liberty and freedom the Founders espoused: Independence had a personal as well as national meaning, and the choices made by people living outside the colonies were of critical importance to the war’s outcome. DuVal introduces us to the Mobile slave Petit Jean, who organized militias to fight the British at sea; the Chickasaw diplomat Payamataha, who worked to keep his people out of war; New Orleans merchant Oliver Pollock and his wife, Margaret O’Brien Pollock, who risked their own wealth to organize funds and garner Spanish support for the American Revolution; the half-Scottish-Creek leader Alexander McGillivray, who fought to protect indigenous interests from European imperial encroachment; the Cajun refugee Amand Broussard, who spent a lifetime in conflict with the British; and Scottish loyalists James and Isabella Bruce, whose work on behalf of the British Empire placed them in grave danger. Their lives illuminate the fateful events that took place along the Gulf of Mexico and, in the process, changed the history of North America itself.”

Suggested by Michael McDonnell, University of Sydney

Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution 

  • “In this pathbreaking book, Robert Parkinson argues that to unify the patriot side, political and communications leaders linked British tyranny to colonial prejudices, stereotypes, and fears about insurrectionary slaves and violent Indians. Manipulating newspaper networks, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and their fellow agitators broadcast stories of British agents inciting African Americans and Indians to take up arms against the American rebellion. Using rhetoric like “domestic insurrectionists” and “merciless savages,” the founding fathers rallied the people around a common enemy and made racial prejudice a cornerstone of the new Republic.”

Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

  • See above. Read redundancy as emphasis.

Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World

  • “This groundbreaking book offers the first global history of the loyalist exodus to Canada, the Caribbean, Sierra Leone, India, and beyond. Following extraordinary journeys like the one of Elizabeth Johnston, a young mother from Georgia, who led her growing family to Britain, Jamaica, and Canada, questing for a home; black loyalists such as David George, who escaped from slavery in Virginia and went on to found Baptist congregations in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone; and Mohawk Indian leader Joseph Brant, who tried to find autonomy for his people in Ontario, Liberty’s Exiles challenges conventional understandings about the founding of the United States and the shaping of the postrevolutionary world. Based on original research on four continents, this book is at once an intimate narrative history and a provocative new analysis—a story about the past that helps us think about migration, tolerance, and liberty in the world today.”

Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America

  • “Gary Nash offers a profound new way of thinking about the struggle to create this country, introducing readers to a coalition of patriots from all classes and races of American society. From millennialist preachers to enslaved Africans, disgruntled women to aggrieved Indians, the people so vividly portrayed in this book did not all agree or succeed, but during the exhilarating and messy years of this country’s birth, they laid down ideas that have become part of our inheritance and ideals toward which we still strive today.”

Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 

  • “Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply Variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone on the continent. Her remarkable research shows us how the disease devastated the American troops at Quebec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston, and how it ravaged slaves in Virginia who had escaped to join the British forces. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge, General Washington had to decide if and when to attempt the risky inoculation of his troops. The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-health crises and heartbreaking human drama. Fenn’s innovative work shows how this megatragedy was met and what its consequences were for the young republic.”

Alan Taylor,  American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W.W. Norton, September 2016)

  • “The American Revolution is often portrayed as a high-minded, orderly event whose capstone, the Constitution, provided the ideal framework for a democratic, prosperous nation. Alan Taylor, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, gives us a different creation story in this magisterial history of the nation’s founding.Rising out of the continental rivalries of European empires and their native allies, Taylor’s Revolution builds like a ground fire overspreading Britain’s mainland colonies, fueled by local conditions, destructive, hard to quell. Conflict ignited on the frontier, where settlers clamored to push west into Indian lands against British restrictions, and in the seaboard cities, where commercial elites mobilized riots and boycotts to resist British tax policies. When war erupted, Patriot crowds harassed Loyalists and nonpartisans into compliance with their cause. Brutal guerrilla violence flared all along the frontier from New York to the Carolinas, fed by internal divisions as well as the clash with Britain. Taylor skillfully draws France, Spain, and native powers into a comprehensive narrative of the war that delivers the major battles, generals, and common soldiers with insight and power.

    With discord smoldering in the fragile new nation through the 1780s, nationalist leaders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sought to restrain unruly state democracies and consolidate power in a Federal Constitution. Assuming the mantle of “We the People,” the advocates of national power ratified the new frame of government. But their opponents prevailed in the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, whose vision of a western “empire of liberty” aligned with the long-standing, expansive ambitions of frontier settlers. White settlement and black slavery spread west, setting the stage for a civil war that nearly destroyed the union created by the founders.”

What books do you think are actively shaping the field?

3 thoughts on “American Revolution Reading List

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