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.
–John L. Smith, Jr.
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.
–Nancy K. Loane
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.)
–J. L. Bell
Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002 [original: New York: Harper Collins, 1958]).
–Derek W. Beck
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.”
–Steven Paul Mark
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.
–Don N. Hagist
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.
–John A. Nagy
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.
Thanks a lot, this post is a fascinating resource. So many books, so little time….
That all depends on what I’m looking for and where I am in the search process. Like Mr. Bell, I often start by looking at Wikipedia and go from there. Once I start delving further into a topic, I have shelves full of secondary sources that get regular use (including many by folks on this “Journal”). The deeper I get when doing research, the more I go to primary sources. I spend an inordinate amount of time on the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” (in particular, “Washington Papers” and “Journals of the Continental Congress” [this is only a very small part of the “Papers”]) and fold3 (primarily “Papers of the Continental Congress,” “Rev War Pensions,” and “Miscellaneous Numbered Records”). Lastly, I have many grand distractions perusing period newspapers.
Like you and J.L., I find myself going to Wiki just to get a general idea of a topic and then take off from there. LOC and fold3 are also great, but I do not find them particularly user-friendly and wish they would work on that.
Other great search engines/resources include Google’s Ngram viewer that J.L. mentioned a few months ago (I love this thing!), New England Historic Geneaological Society (particularly for the newspapers, as well as LOC newspapers) and HathiTrust (if you have not used this, be sure to include it in your research efforts, it is terrific).
Sounds like we have a question for the next round of interviews: Which web site do you use most often?
For this question, though, we deliberately focused on books. It is interesting to see that books are not the starting point that many people use. Not surprising at all, but interesting.
Your idea of an interview on the most valuable websites is a good one. Web access to primary sources and out of print books is getting much better and great research tools.
Don’t you think, Don, it’s because, as “new light” researchers, we are after the content regardless of the form in which it is presented? I once had an editor for a scholarly quarterly badmouth one of my submissions because I included a couple period maps from a website. He went on to suggest three or four print sources for maps. Talk about mired in anti-internet tradition. He couldn’t see that whether it’s from a book or the electronic ether, it’s still the same information. JAR folks are well beyond that limitation.
Can’t say enough good things about Charles Baxley’s website on the southern campaigns of the Revolution. http://www.southerncampaign.org/
When I’m working on a new novel I usually find a book that becomes my go-to for the subject, a jumping off point for further research. Most recently that’s been Odai Johnson’s Absence and Memory in Colonial American Theatre. His Colonial American Stage 1665-1774 has also been a terrific resource. If you’re interested in the politics of performance in 18th century America these two deserve a place on your shelf.
Thanks for the suggestions, Donna. Over the years, I’ve read several 18th-century plays and have wondered what the period theater experience would have been like. Maybe now’s the time to take a look at your suggestions to help answer that question.
Heitman’s Register of Continental Officers is always a go to. As i mainly study the Revolution in the Hudson Highlands, my main sources are almost always Joseph Plumb Martin’s Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier, Diary of a Scottish Grenadier ed by Ira Gruber, and the memoirs of General Heath. Of Course the Washington papers as well.
(So very pleased that some fine researchers also cop to checking Wikipedia first.)
Going to Wikipedia is like driving by an accident: Something inside you says you should be above slowing down to look but you still do.
Wikipedia is a pretty good leaping point as long as one uses it for that purpose.
My largest complaint for the site is – and using Mike’s analogy here – I’ll gawk at the accident near Albany, NY and when I return my eyes to the road I’m somewhere well past Austin, TX. The wife and I call that falling into the Wikipedia black-hole on the way to the darkside of the internet.
Personally I don’t have a specific “Go-To” book, however I often check a couple books that I have that have been published years apart and like to note the difference in the way the information is presented. I had for a bit of time attempted to collect old textbooks on American History to be compared to modern texts. Even the differences from 1913 to the 1950’s is interesting, then add the flair of an 1880’s account of the same event and its nearly as entertaining as a Hollywood blockbuster.
Just the other day i was on Wikipedia looking up Napoleon III and an hour later i was looking up Magyar migrations. How did i even get there from 1850s France!
Thanks for all these references. I’m still at the Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier stage. I hope to eventually read a few of these books perhaps when i retire.
I did pick up an archeological reference from U Penn the other day. Very interesting.
Great to see so many of you with a passion for the period.