Five Compelling Books on the American Revolution

Five Compelling Books on the American Revolution July 2, 2013

For the Fourth of July, here are five compelling books on the American Revolution. A few caveats: these are all books written by academic historians for a popular audience. I’m not including books on the Revolution by journalists and other writers, though there are many excellent ones, such as Ron Chernow’s biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. I’m not including primary sources, just books by contemporary historians. And need I mention that I am not including my own books?? Here we go:

1) Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991). OK, a conventional pick, but this is arguably the finest book on the Revolution by a living historian, and more readable than his equally brilliant Creation of the American Republic.

2) David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (1994). Fischer’s evocative story places Revere in his proper colonial context. After reading this, you’ll understand why it was impossible that Revere would have ever said “The British are coming!”

3) Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997). The definitive history of the Declaration, its creation, and the way that Americans came to revere it as a quasi-sacred document.

4) James Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (2013). The newest book on my list, Byrd has dramatically transformed our understanding of how the Bible was actually used in the Revolution. Byrd bothered to count the number of times particular passages were cited in Revolutionary-era publications. So, for instance, did the Patriots deal with Romans 13 and its strictures against rebellion? It turns out that this passage was the most commonly cited one during the Revolution.

5) Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (2011). Our finest book on the Loyalists in the Revolution, Jasanoff’s fascinating account shows why so many Americans – including a number of evangelical Christians – found themselves defending the British Empire and what she calls the “Spirit of ’83.” My Books and Culture review of Jasanoff is here.

What do you think? What books would you have included?

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  • UShistorian

    Thomas, it is difficult to argue with your list. I am particularly intrigued by “Sacred War, Sacred Scripture” since I have long suspected that the “fighting preachers” and Revolutionary pulpits in New England and among Southern dissenters loomed large in their ideological influence over the War for Independence. As for me, I would add the following five books to make a Top Ten. (Full disclosure: My leanings toward military and social history colored my choices.)

    Carl Becker, “The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas.” Still one of the best single-volume overviews of the meaning and message of the Declaration and the importance of natural rights theory to the Founders.

    Robert Gross, “The Minutemen and their World.” An excellent examination of the New England society that produced reluctant revolutionaries who fomented a revolution.

    John Shy, “A People Armed and Numerous: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence.” A look at the strengths and weaknesses of the American militia, the careers of British military commanders in the Revolution, and Britain’s strategy that refused to change in the face of defeat.

    Charles Royster, “A Revolutionary People At War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.” An examination of the birth of not only the American Army, but the ideas that shaped its character and its dedication to civilian control.

    Robert Middlekauff, “The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789.” Middlekauff rightly emphasizes the role of the Seven Years’ War and the Stamp Act Crisis in setting the stage for revolution, as well as offers interesting and readable single-volume history of the war from the civilian as well Founders’ point of view.

    By the way, I am still blogging on the Founding Period, the Declaration, and the significance of both in U.S. History. Several of my pieces have been re-posted by RealClearPolitics and RealClearHistory.

    Finally, I just purchased your book on Patrick Henry, and I look forward to reading it.

    Best wishes for a glorious Fourth,

    Paul R. Huard

  • Thomas Kidd

    Thank you Paul! I especially like Royster because of his sensitivity to religious issues in the war.

  • Randy

    What about a more general history of the events including the military conflict? Is Robert Middlekauff – The Glorious Cause – the standard or is there something better? And since I believe lists should be subtracted from – I suggest removing Byrd or Maier (in that order) in order to make room for Middlekauff.

  • Thomas Kidd

    Middlekauff is probably still the standard overview, but for _reading_ purposes, I think there are many better choices. Wood’s _The American Revolution_ is a very nice overview as well (and far shorter than Middlekauff!).

  • Randy

    To push a bit further, if I were to insist that an overview is necessary but that the list stay at 5, what would you do? Two books by Gordon Wood (which I would do, I think he’s amazing) and then ditch who?

  • Thomas Kidd

    Switch Wood for Wood.

  • John Turner

    Coincidentally, I just led a class of graduate students in a discussion of Radicalism of the American Revolution this summer. In terms of historiography, it’s a radical rebuke of earlier (as well as more recent) “Progressive” interpretations of the revolution. One thought that occurred to me, however, is that the revolution is rather peripheral to Wood’s narrative, which is really of a longer transformation in American society that spans from the 1740s to the 1820s or so. He argues (but, I think, could have argued more clearly and vigorously) that the revolution was central to that transformation (the decline of patriarchy, aristocratic patronage, deference; the rise of internal trade and paper money, etc.). That qualification aside, it’s one of my very favorite books on the revolutionary era because instead of focusing on what did not happen (or was not achieved), he carefully traces changes over time, which, after all, is one of the main tasks of the historian.

  • Thomas Kidd

    this is very helpful, John. yes, the events of the Revolution itself really are peripheral in Wood – it is a “revolution of hearts and minds” kind of book.

  • I very love the American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. Thumbs up!
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