What books do you consider essential to any American Revolution buff’s library? Why?
About 12 years ago I ran across John Buchanan’s The Road to Guilford Courthouse and fell in love with the Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution. Been stuck there ever since. To this day, many of the opinions or views I hold toward the individual participants come from the foundation provided by Mr. Buchanan.
For a good survey book covering the war itself, I really like John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle. He manages to squeeze most of the major events into a very readable single volume that moves fast and is a real pleasure to read.
I recently had opportunity to review about 20 books covering the Saratoga Campaign. The books started in 1787 and the last one I looked at was a 21st century work. I really came away with two that I highly recommend. The first is Col. John Elting’s 1977 book, The Battles of Saratoga, which has, unfortunately, become difficult to obtain. However, on a more positive note, a really excellent alternative named Saratoga surfaced in recent years from John Luzader and is readily available at very reasonable prices.
Here are six books that would enhance the library of any American Revolution buff:
Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, elucidates the cluster of radical political ideas that not only shaped the colonists’ thinking, but their responses to policies and events after 1765.
Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation, is the best political history of the period to July 4, 1776, and whereas Bailyn emphasized ideas, Jensen stressed economic causation. While reading Jensen, take a look as his cogent The American Revolution Within America, a seminal reflection on what some leaders wanted and others didn’t want from the American Revolution.
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, is a provocative, often sympathetic, portrayal of British leaders and the problems with which they wrestled.
Eric Robson, The American Revolution, In its Political and Military Aspects, is old but its thoughtful analyses of the causes of the Revolution and outcome of the war remains fresh and illuminating.
R. Arthur Bowler, Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America. Read it and you will better understand the problems the British military leaders faced and the decisions they made.
To me, the key word would be balance. To have a nice balance of viewpoints in a library, and giving a good summary of these events without getting heavy into academic heaviness. Having only seven books would do that: A New Age Now Begins by my mentor Page Smith – easy and fascinating reading for the buff; The American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood – an excellent summarized book; Almost A Miracle by John Ferling – a great AmRev chronicle; Reporting the Revolutionary War by Todd Andrlik – for seeing the events through the eyes of people living the events; 1776 by David McCullough – to just savor engaging words by this author; Founding Myths by Ray Raphael – to help stabilize Founding myths we all grew up with; The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy – a great “war in America” book from the British point of view.
I think, H.W. Brands’ The First American does an excellent job of setting up the background of the war and explaining the concepts of the revolution through the person of Benjamin Franklin. Taken together with Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, these are the essential works for the reader to gain an understanding of what got Colonial America to the brink of war in the first place.
I also like Robert Harvey’s A Few Bloody Noses which is a more British perspective of the war, David McCullough’s 1776 and John Galvin’s The Minute Men.
Primary sources. Joseph Plumb Martin’s narrative is my all-time favorite, even though it was published half-a-century after the fact. It captures the world of soldiering with a rare ironic tone. I’m extremely partial to primary sources, many of which are now in everybody’s “personal library” over the Internet. Multi-volume collections of original writings provide texture and yield gems that have not made their way into the core narrative. Collections edited before the mid-20th century are often digitized and available, but for the more recent collections, superbly edited, you need access to a research library. If you have the time to go through tens of thousands of veteran depositions at the National Archives, well, that would be awesome. (If there were twenty of me, I’d give it a whirl.) But beware the effects of lapsed time and personal motive: these men were working from distant memories and sensed what needed to be said to receive their pensions.
I consider the following 10 books essential reads for any American Revolution buff:
Books that cover different origin arguments for the Revolution:
1.Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Neo-Whig Interpretation)
2. Gary Nash, The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution (New Left Interpretation
3. T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Economic Interpretation)
Good Reads & Different Perspectives:
4. T.H. Breen, Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution
5. Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age
6. Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson
7. Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and Their World
8. David McCullough, John Adams
9. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean
10. Joseph T. Glatthaar & James Kirby Martin, Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution
George Washington, Douglas Freeman (Vols. 3-5). Best account of Washington as general.
Rochambeau, Arnold Whitridge. Excellent biography of the French general who helped Washington win the war
Secret History of the American Revolution, Carl Van Doren. Spies, secret operations, and the Arnold conspiracy.
Spirit of Seventy Six, Henry Commanger and Richard Morris. All aspects of the war through documents, letters, and speeches of those who were there.
War of the Revolution, Christopher Ward. Classic work. All the battles of the war.
Washington’s Crossing, David Fischer. Best account of Trenton and Princeton by an outstanding historian.
Way of the Fox, Dave Palmer. Washington and American strategy.
Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Mark Boatner
George Washington’s Generals and Opponents, George Billias
Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, Jerome Green
Naval History of the American Revolution, Gardner Allen.
Road to Guilford Courthouse, John Buchanan.
War of American Independence, Don Higginbotham
Marc Aronson’s The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence takes readers on a “global journey of discovery” to answer one question: Why did the American Revolution take place? It is very well written, extremely easy to read, and loaded with prints, engravings, maps and portraits. David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, Arthur M. Schlesinger’s Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764-1776, and Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution: A History are also books I wouldn’t hesitate to put on the essential list. And this recent Armchair General Magazine review supports Journal of the American Revolution Volume 1 as an essential addition to any serious RevWar library.
An atlas of the war—and there are a couple to choose from—is essential to understanding its development and scope. Our sense of distance and, in many places, our topography has changed enough that we need to be able to see the landscape of the past fresh.
There are a lot of great collections of letters, memoirs, and biographies of people involved in the war. But Sgt. Joseph Plumb Martin’s memoir offers a counter-narrative of the war from an enlisted man’s perspective that everyone should be aware of.
The War for America, 1775-1783, by Piers Mackesy (1964) is a brilliant history of the war from the British perspective—a rarity among the avalanche of US historians who don’t differentiate opinion from fact. “Patriots” and “Americans” indeed, as if loyalists didn’t perceive themselves as patriotic Americans.
Similarly, the 2013 book, The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, shows that the Brits weren’t as incompetent as many US historians make them out to be.
For the war from the Indian perspective, Colin G. Calloway’s The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995) and Barbara Graymont’s The Iroquois in the American Revolution (1972) broke new ground in describing the war in the frontier.
Likewise, Benjamin Quarles’ The Negro in the American Revolution (1961) broke the back of the racism of previous histories and remains a classic.
Finally, is there anyone who hasn’t used Mark Boatner’s amazing Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (1966) or its succeeding editions?
We live in the golden age of scholarship on the American Revolution. Myth has finally given away to objective study. I recommend any books on the subject by Robert M. Calhoon, John Ferling, John Shy, or Gordon Wood. Ferling should have received the Pulitzer Prize for Almost a Miracle, the best overall view of the American Revolution in generations. I am also a big fan of British historians Robert harvey (A Few Bloody Noses) and Hugh Bicheno (Rebels and Redcoats) but especially for their alternative views.
I would say Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. These seminal books focus on ideas that have enduring power. The first book explains why the patriots argued as they did, looking backwards to English history in a conservative manner, while the latter shows how transformational and radical the American Revolution ended up being. I would add to the list Hiller B. Zobel’s The Boston Massacre, which shows how Boston’s elites joined with ordinary workingmen organized into mobs to manipulate the legal system and popular passions in a shocking manner in order to harass British soldiers stationed in Boston. I have to admit my readings of recent years have focused on the Revolutionary War and not the lead-up to Lexington and Concord, so my list may not be as up to date as it should be. But I did find Kevin Phillips’ recent 1775 to be a very good synthesis of scholarship on the causes of the American Revolution, with some original insights of his own.
In my opinion: Mark Boatners The Encyclopedia of the American Revolution is dated but still an indispensable reference. Sol Stember’s three-part Bicentennial Guide To the American Revolution and Boatner’s Landmarks of the American Revolution are great, I use them often. Both of these guides, while written in the 70s, are well researched and still remarkably accurate. Of course one should verify site information now through websites, etc, but these provide remarkably good directions and landmarks, especially for monuments and markers, rather than just historic sties open to the public. I obviously have a historic site oriented focus! Two of THE best books of battles are Lawrence Babit’s Devil of a Whipping (I can think of no better small unit action study, even for Civil War battles) and War Over Walloomscoick, by Phillip Lord. The best overall book, for military history, is James Martin and Mark Lender’s A Respectable Army– covers the culture of the Continental Army as well as a good overview of the campaigns. For the political side, you can’t beat Edmund Morgan’s Challenge of the American Revolution and Meaning of Independence. Ray Raphael’s book First American Revolution is outstanding on the road to war at the local level. Finally, to me the culture of the time is important, so Stephanie Wolf’s As Various As Their Lands is a must.
Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is crucial to understanding the Revolutionaries’ motives. Economically, the opposition to British policy made little sense; a few pennies in stamp taxes were not going to materially affect people who enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world at the time. And the Tea Act was a tax cut on imported tea, so why such an angry response? Bailyn makes it clear that the conflict was political and ideological. This book inspired me to study the Revolution.
In terms of popular works, I have found Benson Bobrick’s Angel in the Whirlwind to be the most engaging single-volume popular narrative of the Revolution. I still think that Edmund Morgan’s The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 remains an excellent short introduction to the Revolution. A more recent version of a similar type of introduction is Gordon Wood’s Modern Library volume, The American Revolution: A History. I would also recommend that every American Revolution buff read Al Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party and two works by Pauline Maier, American Scripture and Ratification, because, together, they show the important role played by non-“Founders” in the separation from Britain and the establishment of the Constitution. Finally, being an historian I think popular readers should engage with primary sources directly and to that end, I would also recommend Reporting the Revolutionary War, any of the Library of America founders’ volumes, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, the writings of Joseph Plumb Martin, and The Spirit of ’76.
In my writing/research on Greene, I have benefitted most (for background) from David Hackett Fischer’s books on the war, especially Washington’s Crossing. Special studies I have found enlightening are: Robert Wright’s Continental Army, Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War, Ed Lengel’s General George Washington: A Military Life, and, for the British perspective, Piers Mackesy’s War for America. Christian McBurney’s Rhode Island Campaign is an excellent study of a neglected episode of the war. Finally, some new “social” studies on the effects of the war on ordinary people that I feel every RevWar buff should consult are Caroline Cox’s A Proper Sense of Honor, Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana, and Ray Raphael’s People’s History of the American Revolution.
The Spirit of Seventy-Six by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (editors). This book is a compilation of excerpts of most of the key original source material letters, diaries, etc from the entire Revolutionary War. One can read these important excerpts and learn the entire story of the Revolution through the eyes of the participants. My only complaint with it: it is not always clear where irrelevant paragraphs and lines have been removed from the letters presented.
Too often the story of the American Revolution is recounted from an exclusive American “founding fathers” perspective focusing on military strategy, battles and heroes. For a more balanced view, a well-stocked library should contain a substantial number of volumes from the British perspective as well as other participants including American loyalists, Canadians, African Americans, common soldiers and Native Americans.
Here are my suggestions by various topic areas:
- American – John Fiske, The American Revolution
- British – George Otto Trevelyan, The American Revolution
Causes and events leading to the war
- American – John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution
- British – Eliga H. Gould, The Persistence of Empire
Military Strategy and Battles
- British – Michael Pearson, Those Damned Rebels
- American – Henry B. Carrington, Battles of the American Revolution 1775-1781
- New England – Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill
- Northern Theater – Michael O. Logusz, With Musket & Tomahawk (two volumes)
- Southern Theater – John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse
- Naval – Nathan Miller, Sea of Glory – A Naval History of the American Revolution
Books written from a biased perspective
- American – James Thacker, MD, Surgeon in the American Revolutionary Army, Military Journal of the American Revolution
- British – Henry Clinton, The American Rebellion
- Canada – George M. Wrong, Canada and the American Revolution
Military and Political Leaders
- American – J. T. Headley, Washington and His Generals
- British – Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America
- American – Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution – the Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America
- British – Edmund Burke, Speeches and Letters on American Affairs
- Role of women – Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic – Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America
- Role of Native Americans – Colin G. Callaway, The American Revolution in Indian Country
- Roles of blacks – Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence
- George Washington – Ron Chernow, Washington – A Life
- John Adams – Page Smith, John Adams
- Nathaniel Greene – Francis Vinton Greene, General Greene
- Benedict Arnold – F. J. Stimson, My Story: Being the Memoirs of Benedict Arnold, Late Major General in the Continental Army and the Brigadier General in that of His Britannic Majesty
- John Stark – Howard Parker Moore, A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire
- British/Canadian – Jean N. McIlwraith, Sir Frederick Haldimand
- American – Jeremiah Greenman – Robert C. Bray and Paul E. Bushnell, editors, Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution -1775-1783
- British – Elizabeth Cometti, Editor, The American Journals of Lt. John Enys
- B.J. Lossing, Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution
- Moses Coit Tyler, The Literary History of the American Revolution 1763-1783