Which American Revolution book do you refer to most often (not to be confused with “favorite book”)? Why?
The single volume that I access most often is Mark M. Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. In it, I can generally find something about almost any topic pertaining to the American Revolution that either answers a question or gives me a solid lead as to where I can go to get the answer. If we expand our view to multi-volume “books,” the one I use most is William Bell Clark’s Naval Documents of the American Revolution. It is the most abundant and easily accessible repository of primary source documentation relating to almost anything about the American Revolution that I know of.
The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution
The Cornwallis Papers edited by Ian Saberton. 1780 was a very confused and chaotic year in the southern campaigns. As a result, even when looking for information on the Patriot side, the best and most complete primary source comes from Lord Cornwallis. Mr. Saberton put together an excellent resource and his additions in the form of footnotes and chapter summaries are very complete and informative.
John Ferling’s Almost A Miracle. It tells the whole story and tells it well.
For my study of American Revolution-era newspapers, my nose is usually in the original gazettes themselves. However, the secondary sources I have nearby when reading and researching 18th century newspapers include:
- Arthur M. Schlesinger, Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764-1776 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1958).
- Carol Sue Humphrey, This Popular Engine: New England Newspapers during the American Revolution, 1775-1789 (The Associated University Presses, 1992).
- Charles E. Clark, The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665-1740 (Oxford University Press, 1994).
- Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (American Antiquarian Society, 1947).
- Clarence S. Brigham, Journals and Journeymen: A Contribution to the History of Early American Newspapers (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950).
- Edward C. Lathem, Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 (American Antiquarian Society and Barre Publishers, 1972).
- Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America (1810).
For specific events, I think you cannot top the books by David Hackett Fischer for their incredible level of reference detail. But I find that my constant evergreen reference book is the two volume book The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by the Participants, edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris. Researchers and authors will recognize those two editors’ names and their book as superior primary source material. Originally printed in 1958, long before the Internet or online reference sites, I find the books still a comfort to read, browse, and consult for their completeness and accuracy in source transcriptions.
For my particular interests in studying the war’s causation, I cannot point to any one book in particular. Rather, I find those accounts that most closely track the language used by participants conveying individuals’ mindsets of most value. These include, among others, Peter Force’s American Archives, The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliament respecting North America and The Parliamentary Register.
For secondary sources, you cannot go wrong with Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Pauline Maier’s From Resistance to Revolution and Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution.
As I cannot single out one book, let me answer by saying that with regard to the American Revolution down to 1776, I most frequently take Merrill Jensen’s The Founding of a Nation from my bookcase. It offers a comprehensive and nuanced explanation for the colonial insurgency. For the Revolutionary War, my copies of volumes 3-5 of Douglas Southall Freeman’s George Washington have been worn thin because they provide an encyclopedic treatment of Washington, the army, and the war. For the domestic revolution, I turn to Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which is excellent on the idea of equality and other ways of thinking that were changed by the Revolution. For narrative, analysis, and sheer detail on politics in England down to 1776, nothing surpasses Peter D. G. Thomas’s three volumes, British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis; The Townshend Duty Crisis; and Tea Party to Independence.
I keep Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Stackpole Books, 1997) handy in the top drawer of my desk. Well-researched and well-written (with charming bits of wit here and there), Boatner’s is jammed with a plethora of material about all things Revolutionary. The cross-references, maps, and bibliographies are an added plus. This indispensable treasure not only provides general information but also functions as a launching pad for serious research.
P.S. For information specific to Valley Forge, I find the seven volumes of Joseph Lee Boyle’s Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment of the Continental Army (Heritage Books, 2000-2012) both fascinating and invaluable.
Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution April 1775 to December 1783 by Francis Heitman
Heitman provides a useful reference listing each Continental Army officer including an authoritative spelling of their names, dates of service, promotions and in some cases dates of death. In addition, there is an organization of the Continental Army, a chronological listing of battles and several other records invaluable to writers and researchers.
Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 2, Vol. 14. It’s got the full minutes of the Northampton County Committee of Observation, as well a muster rolls and other information useful for most of my research, though all of the PA Archives are useful as far as primary source information goes.
I’m not sure there is such a thing, but if there can be only one, then my vote would be for Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, published in a revised, expanded edition (Oxford University Press) in 2005. In nearly 700 pages this volume represents a nice balance between solid factual information and sensible interpretation of people, issues, and events.
–James Kirby Martin
I’d like to present a classy answer to this question, but on honest reflection I have to say that when I need to look up something unfamiliar these days I click to Wikipedia. Yes, I know it contains errors. The entries on lesser-known people and events are often based on just a few, one-sided sources. Sometimes articles get hijacked by people with pet theories. I usually dig deeper after checking there. But for basic information, Wikipedia is the most wide-ranging, convenient, and generally reliable resource available. (It’s also a non-profit that depends on our donations of money and time.)
Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002 [original: New York: Harper Collins, 1958]).
In the research I’ve done for Journal of the American Revolution articles, published and in progress, I find that I refer most to The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (1931-44) in conjunction with The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. This is the raw material of history and allows me to “be there.”
For battlefield stats, Howard Peckham’s Toll of Independence. I haven’t checked his accuracy with independent sources, however, and would love to know if anybody has. For the political history prior to 1776, Merrill Jensen’s comprehensive narrative, Founding of a Nation, based exclusively on primary sources. For all political history, the Library of Congress’s American Memory website, A Century of Lawmaking for the New Nation: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html
Click Journals of the Continental Congress and Letters of Delegates to Congress. My own post-its award goes to Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 – past the Revolution time frame but the obvious go-to source for my books on the Constitution.
My studies of British common soldiers are drawn mostly from manuscripts, but the few primary sources that have been published, such as the diaries of Frederick Mackenzie and John Peebles, never gather dust on my shelves. But the reference I use most is British Army Officers: Who Served in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 by Steven M. Baule and Stephen Gilbert (Heritage Books, 2004). It’s an alphabetical listing of officers’ names with the regiments in which they served; although it has some limitations and flaws, it’s my go-to quick reference before consulting muster rolls and other primary sources.
The book (actually multivolume set of books) I refer to most often is the Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War, edited by Richard Ryerson and Gregory Fremont-Barnes. When I’m working on a project and need to verify a date, spelling of a name, or fact about an individual or an incident, I can look up the entry and almost always get the information quickly and be almost certain that it’s reliable.
Most referenced book is probably Francis B. Heitman “Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the American Revolution.” I use it constantly to check names and to verify military units. I also reference what rank and unit to which the person was assigned at the time of a specific event. It helps me add substance to the people in my books.
This would have to be Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. As a reference it is invaluable. However, primary sources are important in historical analysis. While I do not have this source in a book form, the Journals of the Continental Congress at the Library of Congress are wonderful sources of information. All kinds of things can be found in these pages.
My copy of The August-October 1777 Papers of George Washington is old, beat-up and dog-eared. Like all the UVA Papers of George Washington, this volume includes copies of documents from small and large American repositories, private collectors, and international libraries. Having been originally trained at Cooperstown as a folklorist, I am constantly studying how historical baloney has evolved from a seed of truth and how perceptions of history are colored by each generation’s social and cultural norms. This particular volume is extraordinarily useful to me in my research on the Philadelphia Campaign. Primary documents are my main probing tools.