Books are an important resource for any researcher. As approaches to the interpretation of history change and new primary source material comes to light, books can become dated. However, some books have value much longer than others. With this in mind, we asked JAR contributors:
“Which book published between 1800 and 1950 do you still find as a reliable and useful source of information about the American Revolution or the founding era, and why?” (For books in public domain that are available on archive.org, we have included a link.)
We received a number of thoughtful replies:
Robert N. Fanelli
The volume I find most consistently useful is Francis B. Heitman’s Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution: April, 1775, to December, 1783 (1914). This monumental work is highly accurate, especially given the relative difficulty at the time of compiling its nearly 700 pages. Information on practically every officer who served can be found here. A typical listing includes the officer’s name, state, date of enlistment and rank, plus each change of regiment and rank, along with other data about wounds received and date of death when known.
At the moment, I’m finding John Heckewelder’s A Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians (1820) fascinating. As a participant in events striving to maintain the dispassionate veneer of a historian, Heckewelder is useful guide to interactions among the British, Americans, and Ohio Indians during the war. His biases are readily apparent, both as a pro-american “neutral” missionary and a patronizing European, but his firsthand knowledge of events provides the color the makes history come alive.
I would recommend: Martin Griffin, Catholics in the American Revolution, Volumes I, II, III, (1907–1911). Martin I. J. Griffin was the founder of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia (1884) and in 1887 began its journal, American Catholic Historical Researches. The culmination of Griffin’s work on American Catholic history was this three-volume history. Aside from biographies of prominent Catholic officers such as Casimir Pulaski, Thaddeus Koszciusko, John Barry, John Sullivan, etc., there are numerous stories, letters, and notes about other Catholics who took part in the American Revolution, both Patriot and Loyalist, including Native Americans, Frenchmen, and the work of Catholic priests.
The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, by Arthur M. Schlesinger (Sr) (1918), for its scholarship, its precision, and its footnotes (much better than endnotes).
For those of us focusing on espionage during the Revolutionary War period, Carl Van Doren’s Secret History of the American Revolution (1941) is probably the most comprehensive collection of primary documents on the Arnold affair. It provides texts of correspondence between Arnold and André as well as information on their negotiations and the intelligence tradecraft used in this operation. It also includes Clinton’s correspondence on Arnold and the operation. This primary source information allows one to analyze the operation from one’s own perspective, yet demonstrates certain truths about man and the operation.
I am partial to Jared Sparks, said to be the first history professor in the United States when he joined Harvard in 1839. His most famous works were biographies of Washington and Franklin. His many works include his editing of the Library of American Biography, in two series (ten and fifteen volumes, respectively, 1834–1838, 1844–1847), to which he contributed articles on the lives of Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, Ethan Allen, spy, Gen. Benedict Arnold, Kazimierz Pulaski, and Gen. Charles Lee. His evaluation of Charles Lee as unfairly treated for his performance at the Battle of Monmouth Court House was ahead of his time and still stands the test of time.
There are a number of books and memoirs by participants that date after 1800 and of course I use those sources. However, in taking a look beyond the revolutionary generation and moving into the later part of the nineteenth century, I like Lyman Draper’s classic work, King’s Mountain and its Heroes (1881). Even though it can’t really be classified as a primary source, the book has some really unique stories and information on the campaign that remains useful to me today. Of course there are also the letters and journal located in Draper’s appendix that seem to guide later historians into similar behavior, definitely something that I am grateful for. Another book that deserves mention is Elizabeth F. Ellet’s The Women of the American Revolution, volumes 1-3 (1848). The Ellet book is earlier than Draper and I sometimes consider it to be a primary source for certain stories on the southern campaigns. The text often suffers from being a single source for information but the type of detail on personality and individual achievements that it brings forth is too valuable to let pass.
A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, from 1635 to 1845 by Joshua Coffin (1845). Coffin was born in Newbury, Massachusetts, on October 12, 1792 and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1817. Although he was not a witness to the American Revolution, he interviewed many Newburyport and Essex County, Massachusetts, veterans and spectators of the conflict. His book has several accounts of little known, yet important events, including the Pope’s Night in Colonial Massachusetts, the Ipswich Fright, Caleb Haskell’s service in the Continental Army and Massachusetts privateer operations.
R. J. Rockefeller
Mary Otis Warren, History of the Rise Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805). It’s an original source with very insightful interpretations as well as reporting. Also, it is a woman’s perspective. It’s a must read for scholars of the period and a great experience for a wider audience as well.
Amazing as it may sound, Robert Abraham East’s Business Enterprise in the American Revolutionary Era, which began life as a doctoral thesis at Columbia University in 1938, is still relevant to any study of the economy and finances of the Revolutionary Era, and its documentation is quoted in nearly every subsequent book on those subjects. I’d also like to nominate Dumas Malone’s first volume in his six on Jefferson, published in 1948.
If you research the Revolution in the Southern theater and build a hefty bibliography doing so with comprehensive footnotes, be it a dissertation, biography, scholarly article or battle, I’m willing to bet included will be Lyman Draper’s King’s Mountain and Its Heroes (1881). As with all massive works about the revolution it has a bias—look at the title—and occasionally I find something that may be amiss, but the point is, you can’t avoid it if you spend a lot of time researching the Carolinas and Georgia. It’s a must resource and not a bad read.
The Life of Major General Peter Muhlenbergby Henry Augustus Muhlenberg (1849) has been discounted by some because of its stirring account of Rev. Muhlenberg’s 1776 farewell sermon. In fact, the author (a great-nephew) gets most things right, quotes original sources, and includes supporting endnotes. Colonel Muhlenberg was a Pennsylvania pastor who led German and Scotch-Irish troops from the Shenandoah Valley. Rising to major general and eventually to Congress, he helped unite both Virginia and America. The Continental Army did much to unify the states and improve religious and ethnic tolerance. This book is a useful and under-recognized case study.
The Delaware Continentals 1776-1783 by Christopher Ward (1941). A classic. Especially useful in a state where most visitors’ first purchase is a t-shirt with the slogan “Dela-Where???”
Two books, both a little off the beaten track: 1) The Negro in the American Revolutionby Herbert Aptheker (1940) was the first modern look at African-Americans during the war, and it certainly helped inspire Benjamin Quarles’s masterpiece two decades later. Aptheker’s forty-seven-page paperback doesn’t cite sources, but includes an extensive bibliography. Aptheker specialized in African American history. An out-of-the-closet Marxist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University and a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, he participated in the D-Day invasion and later, as a major, commanded an African American artillery unit. 2) The British Navy in Adversity by Capt. W.M. James (1926). An exhaustive, well-documented, 452-page look at the naval war from the British perspective as the war spread around the world to its final battle off the coast of India.
I would pick Boston Under Military Rule 1768-1769 as Revealed in a Journal of the Times, compiled by Oliver Morton Dickerson (1936). After England invaded Boston because of a riot that took place after the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop Liberty, a secret group of individuals, still unknown, took it upon themselves to publish the events in Boston and its harbor during the siege, called a Journal of the Times. The events covered included the Hancock trial, the tax seizures in Boston Harbor, and in the end, the journal may have damaged the British enough to have them withdraw the troops. The book is a compilation of those newspaper reports discovered and collected by historian Oliver Morton Dickerson.
John L. Smith Jr.
There are some good Revolutionary War source books that come to mind, by such well-respected authors like Alden, Commager and Morris, French, Morgan, and Van Doren to name a few. But for the most part, those manuscripts mirror the American patriot point of view. My solid favorite for a balanced “other side” story is Sir John Fortescue’s The War of Independence: The British Army in North America, 1775-1783 (1911). While short on naval operations and Tory politics, it’s still my go-to source for the alternative story. It’s also fun when he considered the real enemy to be France.
Joseph Lee Boyle
Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts (1940). I was in high school when I first read the novel and it introduced me to the other side of the American Revolution. Our hero moves in numerous places in the colonies, Europe, and Nova Scotia. He encounters fortitude, heroism, incompetence, duplicity on both sides and eventually survives the war. Read it a second time while on a dig at 96, and was impressed with how accurate Roberts was with many of the scenes and actors at the siege.
Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). It’s not a perfect book—especially when you look at sources and methods. Still, this was such an important piece because it spawned a lot of interest, and generated debate between those who see the Founding Fathers as an “economic interest group” or as a “gathering of demi-gods.” Equally, I think it resonates well today, in an era when commentators address the role of big business or interest groups in influencing politics.
Benson Lossing’s The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution (1860). Lossing did his work before the Industrial Revolution had significantly altered the landscape, allowing him to view and describe each scene much as it had been in the 1770s. In addition, he had the good fortune to talk with folks who had lived during that period or heard accounts directly from those who had experienced the Revolution. Time and people had not yet had much opportunity to turn those stories into the modified legends that we now so often encounter.
Adam E. Zielinski
I recently finished George Washington Parke Custis’s Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (1859). “Wash” Custis, as he was affectionately called by his paternal grandmother, Martha Washington, was witness to the Washington presidency, and many other moments spent at Mount Vernon as a child. Despite George Washington himself being at a loss over how to direct the young boy’s interests, it seems the young Custis took it upon himself to be the standard bearer for America’s “indispensable man,” and spent the next five decades commemorating his namesake at every chance and celebration possible. Because of Custis—the last surviving member of the inner Washington family—we have Washington’s war tent, and with his book, we are given several passages of Washington’s intimate daily moments that have undoubtedly broadened the endless biographies written since. Custis’s stories help illuminate the human side to the specter that has become George Washington while still offering enough mysticism for the trusted devotee of America’s Cincinnatus.
James Kirby Martin
So many worthy choices stand out, but if limited to one selection, my pick is Joseph Plumb Martin’s Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier (1830). No better exposition exists of the harsh realities of long-term service in the Continental army. Originally printed in a limited run and criticized as “unpatriotic” in its description of what groups contributed the most to American victory, Martin’s classic memoir represents a hard-hitting and often humorous assessment of what fighting in the war actually meant from an ordinary soldier’s perspective. To this day, essential reading, indeed!
John U. Rees
I immediately thought of Christopher Ward’s two-volume War of the Revolution (1952). It falls a bit out of the question’s time frame, but bear with me. Ward’s War was published posthumously, with John Richard Alden as editor, and was an off-shoot of his 1941 landmark tome, The Delaware Continentals, 1776-1783. His Delaware Continentals has an entertaining and compelling narrative, all in a well-sourced unit history, citations included. War of the Revolution extends Ward’s attributes as writer and historian. It is an excellent introductory work for newcomers and a decent source-work for those well versed in the subject.
John Miller’s The Origins of the American Revolution (1943) is a great marriage of erudition and elegant prose that chronicles the political developments that led a group once dedicated to expanding the British Empire in North America to revolt and ultimately declare its independence from that empire. Miller was an academic historian at Bryn Mawr and later Stanford, but Origins was commended to a “very wide public” by the New York Times for its “urbanity, scholarship and clarity.” The Book-of-the-Month club apparently agreed, making it their selection as well. To this day it remains an immensely readable but highly detailed account of the Revolution’s prologue that could be cited in the most academic of works.
I periodically consult Benson Lossing’s Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution (1860), the massive product of his 1840s journeys from Canada to Georgia. I have a sentimental attachment as my boyhood impulse purchase of it at a used-book sale helped spark my interest in the era, but Lossing’s meticulous observations of Revolutionary settings, his detailed explicatory footnotes, his conversations with individuals he encountered with first-person or hearsay recollections, and his immense number of sketches-become-woodcuts of battlegrounds and buildings, monuments and portraits, landscapes and vistas, signatures, seals, grave-markers, and other ephemera, are simply extraordinary. He chronicled so much before it vanished forever under the onslaught of the Industrial Age.
The American Revolution in the southern colonies rarely receives the attention that it deserves because it is rare that this theater is viewed in its entirety. Henry Lee’s Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States, in Two Volumes (1812), provides a first-hand account of the southern theater in exquisite detail from a man who led armies in virtually every major (and many minor) battle in the region from 1776 thru 1781. Students of this era of American history will especially appreciate the pragmatism of Lee’s perspective.
I recommend Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence (1922). The late Pauline Maier when writing her American Scripturecommented on Becker’s “delightful, but now dated” treatment of the subject. I agree it is still useful and I turn to it often when looking at the background of the making of the Declaration. At a time when many Americans hear NPR broadcast (or tweet) the Declaration on July 4 each year, it is appropriate to revisit the Declaration’s foundations.
J. L. Bell
The best histories of the whole siege of Boston are still Richard Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston (1849, revised 1873) and Allen French’s The First Year of the American Revolution (1934). The first has a tighter focus; the second benefits from drawing on more sources, especially those from the British side, but is hard to find.
Matthew M. Montelione
Frederic Gregory Mather’s The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut (1913) was an indispensable resource that helped shape my understanding of Long Island in the American Revolution. Mather meticulously compiled lists of numerous Long Island families who fled the area after British occupation in the summer of 1776. He also included a wealth of primary source material. It is an absolutely essential work in the historiography of Long Island in the American Revolution.
I find Sir John Fortescue’s Volume III in his History of the British Army (1911) to still be useful; it has been reprinted separately, titled The War of Independence: The British Army in North America, 1775-1783. It’s a well written history that provides the British perspective and covers both well-known and lesser known campaigns and battles. The book is solidly researched, especially so for a work published in 1911, and includes Fortescue’s observations and personal commentary that are informative and often entertaining.
Agnes Hunt, The Provincial Committees of Safety of the American Revolution (1904). Given their prominent role in the Revolution, the committee system has been somewhat under-served by historians. Hunt’s text remains the only book to focus exclusively on the institutional histories of the committees, even if the source base is occasionally restrictive. With a chapter devoted to each state, it is still a useful reference point for anybody wishing to understand the radical revolution from the ground up.
Doubtless many respondents will nominate Joseph Plumb Martin’s Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, originally published in 1830. No other book can place you so completely in the midst of the horrific struggle of the war. No other book has ever stunned me with such shocking force: this completely believable lad spent eight years of his youth risking his life in the American cause, yet he was (almost) never armed, never clothed, never housed, never fed, never paid, and never even thanked! The fact that this man and his mates met appalling disdain—from officers and citizens alike—while doggedly struggling to win our very independence, really makes you wonder! One realization strikes home very personally: I hardly consider myself a wimp, and I believe the founding cause was fundamentally right and just, but I wouldn’t have lasted a week in the Continental Army!
Carl Van Doren’s ground-breaking work A Secret History of the American Revolution (1941). Not only does the book provide accurate texts of many key manuscripts, but it is based upon extensive archival research, and written in clear, elegant, and compelling prose. Besides covering such celebrated episodes as Benedict Arnold’s treason, Van Doren also examines lesser-known incidents and personalities, offering a careful and convincing reconstruction of complex events. It’s a stimulating and perceptive book that anyone interested in the Revolutionary War will benefit from reading.
Without a doubt, I find Louis F. Middlebrook’s two-volume History of Maritime Connecticut During the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (1925) to be invaluable. The first volume is more of a straightforward history whereas the second is a book-length collection of primary sources including commissions and other paperwork associated with Connecticut’s privateers and state-owned ships. Best of all, Middlebrook mined British archives for charters and testimonies taken from captured U.S. ships and sailors—materials that would’ve otherwise been lost if not for punctilious English record-keeping!
The only answer to this question has to be the American Archives, edited by Peter Force. Technically it is not a book, but a collection of transcribed documents spread over nine volumes that were published between 1837 and 1853. Commonly referred to as Force’s Archives, these massive volumes cover the colonies/states for the first few years of the war. Researchers will probably find numerous amounts of primary source material in these volumes on practically any subject matter. I recommend working with digitized versions as they are more searchable.
William Lincoln, Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and the Committee of Safety, with an Appendix, containing the Proceedings of the County Conventions, Narratives of the Events of April 19, 1775, Papers Relating to Ticonderoga and Crown Point and Other Documents (1838). Similar in intent to the huge, multi-volume contemporaneous American Archives, the editor sought to preserve surviving documentation of the Massachusetts province Patriot congress and related documents. Because the province was “on point” for the Constitutional crisis within the British Empire, historians and biographers addressing political developments and biographies in this region will find Journals of the Provincial Congressa rich collection of primary sources, meticulously transcribed. Since the political body was not yet fully differentiated into the subordinate functional departments of government, the Journalsprovide unexpected granular detail on issues as diverse as structure and supply of the embryonic provincial militia at the outset of the war, and field operational aspects once the fighting began. The book imparts a day by day journalistic impression, that transcends individual entries, of the issues most pressing to regional Patriot leaders. One of countless memorable quotes and interactions it documents is British Gov. Gen. Thomas Gage’s warning to a Provincial Congress delegation on October 17, 1774: “It is my duty, however irregular your application is, to warn you of the rock you are upon, and to require you to desist from such illegal and unconstitutional proceedings.” The Journals’ bland name and early publication year may deter researchers from considering that it is still a go-to source.
Benson Lossing’s Pictorial Fieldbook of the Revolution (1860). Not only did he visit nearly every place of interest, many of the buildings no longer exist, and he also interviewed people who were familiar with the characters and events of the Revolution. Reliable? There are a few errors but it seems accurate. As an added bonus, his travels, between 1850 and 1852, provide a good look at the United States before the Civil War.
Nancy K. Loane
I like, and refer to, Dr. James Thacher’s Military Journal of the American Revolution 1775-1783 (1823). The style and scope of this work is impressive and Thacher’s details are intriguing. An example: Thacher writes that Gen. Benedict Arnold, whose leg was badly fractured by a musket ball at Saratoga, acted “very peevish” and “impatient” under his care. And “Mrs. Washington combines to an uncommon degree great dignity of manner with the most pleasing affability.”
In studying the Revolutionary War in New York’s frontier, I rely on Frederick Cook’s Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779 (1887). It provides a central source for many of the Continental officers’ accounts of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. The officers’ descriptions and the official maps for the campaign not only offer insights into tactics but also their perceptions of the landscape they were marching across. Many of the troops would return to settle in what is now central and western New York after the war. The book includes transcripts of those who spoke at the centennial of the Battle of Newtown, including Gen. William T. Sherman.
Francis Bernard Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army: From Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (1903). This is still the most thorough source for basic biographical information about officers and soldiers in the war complemented by the DAR Patriot Index.
I still find Carl Van Doren’s Secret History of the American Revolution (1941) a reliable, useful source of information about the American Revolution. I believe it is the best account of the foiled conspiracy between Benedict Arnold and the British to arrange the fall of the vital post of West Point to a British force.
For reliability pre-1950, I would stick with collections of primary sources. In my special field, the lead-in to Lexington and Concord, a go-to collection is William Lincoln, ed., The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of Safety, with an Appendix, containing the Proceedings of the County Conventions (1838).
Peter Force (ed), American Archives, 4th ser., 6 vols. (1837). It is a collection of important newspaper articles, congressional records, and letters. The scope of American Archives exceeds that of the Revolution, but the key volumes begin in series 4 (six volumes per series, and the work was left incomplete). It is all primary sources and a great way to understand the core of the Revolutionary War. But they are a reference, largely arranged chronologically. They are not something one reads cover to cover.
Sneaking onto the list with a published date of 1949, I recommend Howard Parker Moore’s biography A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire. While there are three twenty-first century Stark biographies, none have provided any additional insights into his character or revolutionary activities. Moore’s book is not as pleasing to the eye but contains insightful observations on the political environment between and among the generals and Congress supported by copious primary sources. Further, this book is a must-read for those interested in the controversies surrounding the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Correspondence of the American Revolution; being Letters of Eminent Men to George Washington, from the Time of his taking Command of the Army to the End of his Presidencyedited by Jared Sparks (4 volumes, 1853). Yes, long title but the collection of primary sources that Sparks gathered into one place for this project is just mind-blowing. With these letters, you get a good sense of what was going on during the times and the personalities of the people who were writing them. They also contain the little details that may be overlooked. When I am researching I always start here.
Gavin K. Watt
As students of the war in the north know full well, there is no “official” history of Butler’s Rangers, the most active and far reaching Tory regiment in the Canadian Department; however, there is a fine, compact history written by one of Canada’s foremost historians: Ernest Cruikshank, The Story of Butler’s Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara (1893). Unfortunately, Cruikshank wrote at a time when histories were only infrequently indexed and sources were not cited; however, all of his many published materials were noteworthy for his “unsparing . . . vigilance for inaccuracies.” Cruikshank was one of the first researchers/authors to employ the Haldimand Papers, the most useful and complete source of original Revolutionary War material of the northern war, and Cruikshank’s text can be verified by searching this source.
Definitely Rev. Samuel Miller’s A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century. Part First; In two Volumes: containing A Sketch of the Revolutions and Improvements in Science, Arts, and Literature, during that period (1803). Why? In part because it is intriguingly perched on the boundary between the history and historiography of the founding era. Also, Miller’s account reminds us of how many and varied were the interconnected ideas that constituted the American Enlightenment and underpinned the American Revolution.
Bruce Ware Allen
Gardner Weld Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (1913). Yes, he is a relative, and the book sat on our shelves when I was a child, evidence that real people could write history. The book itself is more than a family artifact, however; it contains both a wealth of real information on this understudied aspect of the Revolution and a style which, if a little dated, is still compelling. More recent titles on the subject still cite his work. People new to the subject would benefit from starting here.
Patrick H. Hannum
Claude Blanchard, The Journal of Claude Blanchard, Commissary of the French Auxiliary Army sent to the United States during the American Revolution, translated and edited by Thomas Balch (1876). Today we would describe Blanchard’s position as a logistician with Rochambeau’s expeditionary army in North America. He provides a unique perspective; military leaders, planners and operators concede that logistics in warfare defines the realm of possible operations, which grind to a halt without sustainment. Blanchard highlights the basic sustainment challenges experienced by Rochambeau’s army and provides details pertaining to military events and observations about life in Revolutionary America.
Any to add, readers?