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Ten Books Any Student of American History Must Read

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty

I woke up on Christmas morning thinking about American historians. It probably was because I had a dream about a historian I knew, or maybe it reflected my own wish—having never taken or taught an American history course, but having written five books of American history—to be regarded as one of the gang. I had hours to kill before my family got up, so I started thinking of what historians and books had most influenced my view of American history, and I came up with a list of ten. They're my favorites; they're not the best books, because I haven’t read comprehensively, especially in certain periods. It’s much heavier on the history of religion than on social history, and on the Progressive Era than on, say, the Civil War.

1. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness. (1956) Miller, a professor at Harvard for two decades after World War II, wrote how Puritan theology—before that, popularly identified with sexual repression and witch burning—influenced America’s idea of itself as having a mission—an “errand into the wilderness.” In Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, Miller also parsed the early conflicts within American Christianity that issued, paradoxically, in the First Amendment. Ideas of American exceptionalism and of America having a special mission in the world all date from the Puritan beliefs that Miller described in his books.

2. William McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform. (1978) McLoughlin, a professor at Brown, described how the history of political and social reform in America tracked that of religious awakenings. What I realized after reading McLoughlin was that the Sixties, which I had lived through, had been a period of religious awakening as well as reform—only the religion had been as different from the standard issue as, say, Millerities or Mormons of the Second Awakening during the 1830s had been from Presbyterianism. McLoughlin would have had trouble, though, fitting the rightwing revival of the ‘80s into his history.

3. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. (1969) Wood, who still teaches at Brown, described how the Federalists justified Constitutional measures aimed at curtailing popular democracy by invoking radical republican ideas of popular sovereignty. The ruse Wood described continues to haunt American debates over “big government” and "states' rights." In a later work, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood describes how the American revolution—which historians sometimes reject as a real revolution—set off a social revolution away from vestiges of English Feudal hierarchy. It’s a great book about American values.

4. Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. (1988) When I grew up, kids played cowboys and Indians, and westerns dominated the movies and early television. We still thought of Indians as the bad guys. The American view of Native Americans changed in the civil rights era, but the brutal repression and murder of the Indian tribes laid the foundation for modern America and for modern American democracy, as well as American overseas expansion, and still sits uneasily in our understanding of ourselves. I’d hear occasional echoes of cowboys and Indians in attempts to justify or explain George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Rogin’s book is about the central role that Jackson, the erstwhile popular democrat, played in that history.

5. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life. (1909) Croly was a journalist by trade and not a professional historian (as was W. J. Cash, the author of the pathbreaking Mind of the South), but in spite of being an ink-stained wretch, he altered our view of the past. Croly rehabilitated Alexander Hamilton’s view of energetic government. He wrote that with the onset of industrialization, Jefferson’s and Jackson’s opposition to a strong national government had laid the basis for a growing division between rich and poor. Croly also extolled the role of a “disinterested” elite in promoting reform—an outlook that reflected, but also inspired, the work of Robert Brookings of the Brookings Institution or Robert Filene of the Twentieth Century Fund.

6. Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916. (1988) During the first decades of the twentieth century, American capitalism began to come to terms with the inequities and instabilities unleashed by the growth of large businesses and banks. In tracing the debate over how to regulate trusts from Theodore Roosevelt to Taft to Wilson, Sklar shows our current model of active government—embraced by liberals as well as, to a great extent, conservatives to the left of the most doctrinaire libertarians—emerged during Wilson’s first term. It’s about our underlying framework. In a subsequent book of essays, The United States as a Developing Country, Sklar takes the analysis through the 1920s, showing that the cultural radicalism and the growth of a post-industrial economy actually dates from that decade rather than from the ‘60s.

7. Warren Susman, Culture and History. (1973) These essays are about American culture from the 1920s through the 1950s, and are consistently brilliant. The stupidest decision I’ve ever made as an editor was turning down an essay by Susman on the thirties, which is reprinted in this book. Susman made the point that the thirties, often described as the “red decade,” was very socially conservative compared, say, to the 1920s. It was an era of family, faith and community. Susman includes in his essay the greatest quote ever—from a Young Communist League pamphlet in 1936:

Some people have the idea that the Young Communist Leaguer is politically minded, that nothing outside of politics means anything. Gosh no. They have a few simple problems. There is the problem of getting good men on the baseball team this spring, of opposition from ping-pong teams, of dating girls, etc. We go to shows, parties, dances and all that. In short, the YCL and its members are no different from other people except that we believe in dialectical materialism as the solution to all problems.

8. Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. (1967) Cruse, like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, joined the Communist Party and then broke with it. Cruse introduced the thesis of Crisis in long essays in 1962 in Studies on the Left. That’s important to realize because at the time black politics seemed divided between a sensible civil rights movement and a nutty separatist movement associated with the Black Muslims. Cruse showed that the division went back to that between integrationist and ethnic nationalist politics, and that there was much to be said for ethnic nationalism and for a black interest group politics, led by black middle class. Later Cruse was critical of the flamboyant Black Power movement and never had any patience with the gun-toting posture of the Black Panther Party.

9. William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (1961). American historians—from George Bancroft to Charles Beard—tried to put forth a theory of American history. Williams at the University of Wisconsin, and Louis Hartz were among the last to attempt that kind of synthesis. Contours divides up American history into different periods distinguished by different modes of production, different relations between the economy and government, and different overall ideological frameworks, or weltanschauungs, a notion Williams derived from the German historian and philosopher William Dilthey. Williams was among the first to draw a sharp distinction between the eras of laissez-faire and corporate capitalism, and Williams and his pupil Sklar were also among the first to show that reform in the twentieth century was as much the product of an enlightened capitalist elite as it was of pressure from below.

10. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (1955). Hartz, in contrast to Williams, reduced American history to a simple dynamic—the result of America’s lack of a European feudal tradition. In America, Hartz argued, Lockean liberalism became the default ideology and attempts to implant socialism or an aristocratic conservatism consistently failed. Hartz’s view is too simple, but it helps to explain the anti-statism of the Jacksonians and—almost two hundred years later—the Tea Partiers. Hartz, who taught at Harvard, also edited and wrote substantial sections of a later book, The Founding of New Societies, that attempted to explore the similarities and differences among the settler colonies, including the United States, Australia, and Canada. Hartz’s analysis helps explain why Canadians are less anti-statist, and Australians more social democratic in their outlook.