My American History Self-Education Reading List
Believe it or not, I took civics twice. Once in 7th grade and again in 9th. I took the required American History course in college (though I postponed it to my senior year), and in all three cases I had great teachers. My lack of knowledge about anything pertaining to American history has far more to do with user error than anything else, but it was what it was. I hit a low point when I was sitting around talking with some friends one night and I had no idea when the civil war started and stopped, who was president during WWI, or who Teddy Roosevelt was, much to my own detriment.
So in a moment of resolve, I thought to myself, how do people know all this stuff about American history? Reading, of course, the answer to most questions, I’ve come to decide. So I set out to compile a self-education reading list. Reader beware, I thought, I can’t spare that much time to read, and I wasn’t sure at the time how interested I would be 100 pages into an endless set of historical tomes.
Like many of you, I grew up under the impression that history was boring. So I took the necessary precautions and set some ground rules. No ordinary history books would do. These books needed to fall under a strict set of criteria. The books, or authors, needed to have won a prize, preferably the Pulitzer, for history or biography. They needed to cover a good swath of history. As I came to find out, good biographies don’t just give you an overview of their subject, but they recreate the surroundings in such a way that you can see why people did what they did and the effects it had at the time and after. They needed to be well written. I wasn’t interested in books history buffs enjoyed; I wanted to read the books people liked to read. Last - I wanted to be able to finish in a year, so I had to be picky. Most of these books are long, but you can workably read one a month and finish in a year, or two, like I did. Here's what I came up with:
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power - Jon Meacham (1743-1826)
It’s debatable, and probably an unpopular take given Alexander Hamilton’s recent resurgence, but I think this is one of the most important books to understand the founding ideas that shaped America. Jefferson wasn’t just the third President, he was one of the towering political and intellectual figures of the founding. Meacham assesses the extent of Jefferson’s influence, his staggering brilliance, and presents America’s founding renaissance man.
Undaunted Courage - Stephen Ambrose (1800-1806)
The Lewis and Clark expedition might be the most underrated segment of American history. After Jefferson purchased almost a million square miles from Napoleon, he sent his personal secretary and an expeditionary force to find a path to the pacific. Their extensive journals and maps powered American exploration for decades, but the courage of their journey embodied the American spirit for far longer.
The Most Famous Man in America - Debby Applegate (1813-1877)
This one doesn’t make it onto most people’s lists, but Applegate’s biography of Henry Ward Beecher captures the religious and social climate of American from the founding generation through reconstruction. Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was America’s famous preacher. The son of a hellfire and brimstone fundamentalist, Beecher charted the course out of fundamentalism and into the social gospel. Millions of Christians and the mainline denominations would follow 50 years later.
Rebel Yell - S. C. Gwynne (1824-1863)
On my journey through American history, I stopped for several months to read about the Civil War, and found Stonewall Jackson particularly interesting. Jackson was one of the greatest military minds America has ever produced, and if he hadn’t been killed during the battle of Chancellorsville, the war would have gone very differently. We can be glad about that, and I’ll write elsewhere about how we assess confederate generals, but Stonewall represents a defining type and era in American history. Paired with Hymns of the Republic, Gwynne’s books give an essential look at the Civil War, the men who waged America’s bloodiest conflict, and the way small events shape human history.
A Stillness at Appomattox - Bruce Catton (1861-1864)
This is one of the gold standards in Civil War history. Catton’s Civil War trilogy is hard to put down, and he gives a circumspect view of the war, the ideas that tore the nation apart, and the people involved.
Team of Rivals - Doris Kearns Goodwin (1860-1865)
You can’t read this book without coming away thinking Abraham Lincoln was the best president in the history of the United States. Upon winning one of the most hotly contested elections to dare, Lincoln filled his cabinet with his most bitter rivals. He knew he would need them if he had any chance of keeping the Union together. Goodwin masterfully profiles Lincoln’s cabinet, through all of their struggles and successes.
The Metaphysical Club - Louis Menand (1861-1919)
After the Civil War, a group including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Louis Agassiz, Charles Sanders Pierce, and a few others began meeting together and shaping the future of America. Their ideas, from the advent of modern psychology to legal theory to the philosophy of pragmatism, became the bedrock of American intellectual life for the next century. Menand brilliantly weaves their ideas and their lives in a readable and understandable story.
Brave Companions - David McCullough (1807-Present)
Although it is not one of his better known books, this was actually my first encounter with David McCullough, and as you can tell from the second list below, my advice would be to read everything he’s written. There are very few historians who can write like McCullough. He’s a grandfather for every American. This book chronicles the American spirit, from the scientific endeavors of Agassiz and von Humboldt, to the daring pilots of the early 20th century, to the story behind America’s most historic cities. I listened to this one on Audible, and it was a delight I’ve returned to several times.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt - Edmund Morris (1858-1907)
It doesn’t take much reading to realize that Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most interesting and significant figures in the history of our country. All at once a naturalist, rancher, author, historian, politician, governor, and the 26th President, there is little Roosevelt didn’t do. You wouldn’t expect that he was a sickly child, confined to an iron lung for a time, but filled with resolve. He willed himself to be the man that he became and Morris does a masterful job bringing you face to face with young Teedie.
The River of Doubt - Candice Millard (1912)
After he lost the presidential election of 1912, TR was in a bad place, but he didn’t react like most people would have; he decided to join an expedition down the Rio da Duvida, the river of doubt, a tributary of the Amazon. After several speaking stops in South America, he joined his son, Kermit, and famed naturalist George Cherrie. After this book and several others, Millard has become one of my favorite historians. River of Doubt reads like a thriller. I won’t give anything away, but things do not go well.
The Last Lion, Vol. 1-3 - William Manchester (1874-1965)
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this trilogy is one of the finest ever written, on one of the greatest men who ever lived, certainly one of the most important in recent history. Manchester chronicles the life of Winston Churchill, and though this breaks the mold from purely American history, I couldn’t leave it out. This is the best overview of WWI and WWII you’ll come across, both for the perspective, (the British shouldered the load of both wars long before the Americans joined the war efforts), and for the writing. The first 40 pages of the first volume is worth the price of the trilogy. Manchester is that good. This is a long haul; it took me a year to read these three books, but it was worth every page.
I won’t make any claims that this list covers the full extent of American history. I can imagine some pushback over the lack of any books on the Civil Rights Movement and I didn’t come across a good book on WWI from an American perspective. The roaring 20s are largely missing, as are some colossal works on the American founding. It also took me two years to read these instead of one (some of this is due to William Manchester. His three thousand page volumes are worth it, but took me a year by themselves.) These are the lessons you learn when you get out waist deep and have a look around. In the years since, I’ve added several books to the list:
John Adams - David McCullough (1735-1826)
The Federalist Papers - (1776-1779)
The British Are Coming - Rick Atkinson (1775-1777)
1776 - David McCullough (1776)
Hymns of the Republic - S. C. Gwynne (1864)
Custer’s Trial - T. J. Stiles (1839-1876)
Truman - David McCullough (1884-1972)
The Second World Wars - Victor Davis Hanson (1940-1945)
The Path to Power - Robert Caro (1908-1941)
Letter From a Birmingham Jail - Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963)
Parting the Waters - Taylor Branch (1954-1963)
Decision Points - George W. Bush (2000-Present)
The point of all this is to encourage you to dig into our history. America is the greatest nation in history for so many reasons. And that’s not a statement of disrespect. There are other countries that I think are even more interesting, and in the sweep of history, America is a small blip on the map, but no group of people have fought harder for the cause of liberty than we have. No country has ever put so much trust in the will and the rights of the people. No country has worked harder to advance the causes of freedom and human dignity across the world. And it hasn’t been easy. Take up any book on this list, and you won’t just be proud to be an American, you’ll feel a renewed energy and vigor to take up the cause of freedom, no matter the cost, to understand our nation, and to revere those who sacrificed everything to make it what it is.
Comment with some favorites you'd add to the list!
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.