This month, we asked our contributors to name their favorite new book (published within the last two years) on the American Revolution or America’s founding era.
Lars. D. H. Hedbor
While there has been a lot of terrific original scholarship around the American Revolution published in the past two years, and some simply spectacular historical fiction, I think that the book I’ve most enjoyed recently was Nathaniel Philbrick’s Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy (Viking, 2021), where he retraces Washington’s unifying 1789 trip throughout the new United States. Richly detailed, exceptionally engaging, and unfailingly honest in his assessment of Washington’s strengths—and flaws—Philbrick invites us to better understand the boundless opportunities and unfathomable challenges that the first President under the new Constitution had to grapple with.
Alec D. Rogers
Jeffrey Hacker’s Minds and Hearts: The Story of James Otis Jr. and Mercy Otis Warren (Bright Leaf, 2021) is a gem of a dual biography and intellectual history of James Otis and sister Mercy Otis Warren. John Adams always credited Otis with sparking the Revolution with his arguments in the writs of assistance case and his pamphlets, while Mercy was the first historian of the Revolution whose popular writings, poetry and plays helped bring James’s more esoteric arguments to a much broader audience. Hacker’s vivid writing brings colonial Massachusetts and its rich political and religious ferment to life in an economical 272 pages.
Woody Holton’s Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2021) gets my vote. It is comprehensive and provocative, a work that informs and engages, but is especially valuable for the manner in which it questions traditional assumptions about the Revolutionary struggle and its surrounding era.
John Ferling’s Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 (Bloomsbury, 2021) gets my nod. Its focus over the last three-quarters of the work on the Southern campaign of the British and the American was enlightening in a number of ways. I personally came away after finishing it with a greater appreciation of Clinton as a commander. While not brilliant in all regards, he certainly was not going “to lose the war.”
Steven M. Baule
I would suggest Joseph J. Ellis’s The Cause: The American Revolution and its Discontents, 1773-1783 (W. W. Norton, 2021). The book does an excellent job of providing a broad overview of the political concepts of the war. At the end of every chapter, he provides a short biography to help illustrate a point or two from the chapter. The struggle of the founding fathers with the concepts of liberty and slavery is well covered. He spends some time explaining the colonial politics that created a Continental Army that always seemed one step away from dissolution and the British policies that made the war strategically unwinnable.
Don N. Hagist
While I admittedly spend more time reading primary sources than the work of other historians, it was a pleasure to take the time to read Julie Flavell’s The Howe Dynasty: The Untold Story of a Military Family and the Women Behind Britain’s Wars for America (Liveright, 2021). Some might find the interactions between well-to-do family members in England an odd way to learn about military and political history, but this was the reality of the era: the drawing room and card table chatter of influential family women had a significant impact on the careers of two of the American Revolution’s most important commanders.
Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth by Claire Bellerjeau and Tiffany Yecke Brooks (Globe Pequot, 2021). The fascinating never-before-told story of an enslaved woman named Liss owned by the family of Robert Townsend, Culper Jr. in the Culper Spy Ring during the revolution, and Townsend, who goes to extreme levels to rescue her after she escapes with the British army and then is sold back into slavery and sent to Charleston. Townsend returns her to Long Island, where she is ultimately freed, Her story would help turn one of America’s first spies into an abolitionist.
Robert M. Dunkerly
Francis Marion and the Snow’s Island Community: Myth, History, and Archaeology by Steven D. Smith (United Writers Press, 2021)) is a great book combining archaeology and historical research.
One of my favorite new books is Poor Richard’s Women: Deborah Read Franklin and the Other Women Behind the Founding Fatherby Nancy Rubin Stuart (Beacon Press, 2022). It is a thoughtful and informative examination of the ladies in Benjamin Franklin’s life and the important roles they played. The author avoids salaciousness and instead focuses on how these women, as partners and nurturers, helped Franklin with his amazing accomplishments. Rather than just sexual objects, Franklin relied on his women to also keep him balanced and on track as a statesman, publisher, scientist, inventor, businessman, philosopher and, of course, bon vivant.
I thoroughly enjoyed Germantown: A Military History of the Battle for Philadelphia by Michael Harris (Savas Beatie, 2020). Every now and then you just need a good old fashioned military history and he superbly tackles the battle’s context, tactics, personalities, and historiography in a single volume. However, at the risk of appearing to suck up to our editor, my favorite is Don Hagist’s own Noble Volunteers: the British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution (Westholme, 2020), which can’t be beat for its overview, insight, and analysis of the British Army that fought the war. Not only was it a pleasure to read, but I know I’ll keep coming back to it in future years.
Just finished a delightful read: The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III by Andrew Roberts (Viking, 2021).
Timothy C. Hemmis
Holly A. Mayer’s Congress’s Own: A Canadian Regiment, the Continental Army, and American Union (Oklahoma University Press, 2021) is a fascinating and forgotten story of Canadians fighting for the American cause during the War for Independence. She argues that the Congress’s Own Regiment was a unique community that became a microcosm of the Continental Army. It is well researched and would be an excellent addition to anyone’s library.
Nancy Bradeen Spannaus
My favorite new book is Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood (Oxford University Press, 2021). While Wood’s discussion of the radical changes in the state constitutions is invaluable, most important is the chapter on slavery in which he documents that the American Revolution created the “first great anti-slavery movement in world history.” “The abolition of slavery was as important as the other major reforms states undertook; the disestablishment of the Church of England, their plans for public education, their changes in the laws of inheritance, and their codification of the common law, and their transformation of criminal punishment.”
J. Brett Bennett
Of the books with which I’m familiar my favorite has been War at Saber Point: Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion by John Knight (Westholme, 2021). I found the author’s thorough and balanced examination of Tarleton and his troops not only insightful but welcomed since, to my knowledge, the topic has not been the focus of a book-length volume for quite some time.
Robert N. Fanelli
The book I found most thought provoking in the last couple of years is Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution by Michael D. Hattem (Yale University Press, 2020). Covering the period between the 1760s and early 1820s, this book is a masterful exploration of the transformation of American historiography into a new nation’s origin myth. Hattem does more than trace the melding of individual colonial stories into a single national tale. He details how, in rejecting British sovereignty, writers replaced the concept of English liberty with the natural rights of man. Seeking beyond contemporary European models, historians embraced classical antiquity, while celebrating Columbus’s New World, Native American virtue, and their emigrant forbears’ energy, ingenuity and drive for independence, to create a unique way of thinking about their past.
Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion by Daniel Bullen (Westholme, 2021).Shays Rebellion—misnamed and caricatured—is known primarily as a precipitating cause of the Constitutional Convention. Daniel Bullen takes the insurgents more seriously: who were these fellows, and what was the cause of their complaints? By exploring them individually and collectively, Bullen discovers a coherent social movement, rooted in historical tradition. Back in 1774, Massachusetts farmers overthrew British rule, the subject of my own research; in 1786, carefully and strategically, they tried to replicate that playbook. Bullen helps us feel the farmers’ pain and why they protested inequities, but with a very different result.
It must be this book: The King’s Peace: Law and Order in the British Empire by Lisa Ford (Harvard University Press, 2021). It has provided a sharp and genuinely new perspective for us to further grasp the huge impact and shock wave created by the American Revolution on the British empire. But I must also mention Foundations of American Political Thought by Alin Fumurescu and Anna Marisa Schön (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
I picked up Joseph J. Ellis’s The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1713-1783 (W.W. Norton, 2021). For those who know Ellis’s work, his most recent book reflects a lifetime study of the subject and reaffirms his keen insights. It even reveals a few new ones. It’s an engaging read written by someone who sees the big picture and who can offer crisp understandings about key events and personalities, and some less known. His term The Cause describes the colonists’ often disunited war for independence. And the book addresses the old question of whether The Cause really was a revolution.
The book that I have not been able to stop thinking about is Robert G. Parkinson’s Thirteen Clocks: How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). Parkinson’s premise is that the move towards independence was made as a reaction to the underlying fear of the colonists of slave insurrection. It denies the idealism of patriots such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Even if one does not accept Parkinson’s arguments, his book still makes one think about the reasons the colonies banded together against the most powerful nation on the planet.
Widely praised, The Jewish World of Alexander Hamilton by Andrew Porwancher (Princeton University Press, 2021) shows how Hamilton was influenced by Judaism—but he never goes beyond the evidence at hand.
Peter Henriques’ First and Always: A New Portrait of George Washington (University of Virginia Press, 2020). He was able to make some controversial points, especially concerning the Asgill Affair and some psychobabble about his background and what made him tick. Thought provoking.
Biographies from different perspectives represent the most compelling new books. One such book is War at Saber Point: Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion by John Knight (Westholme, 2021). Too often, historians characterize Tarleton as a thuggish British officer who wantonly brutalized American Patriots. While not shying away from the bloody civil war in the South, Knight humanizes Tarleton and offers a balanced view of his accomplishments and failures. As a result, readers will gain a deeper understanding of a British officer who ardently attempted to implement imperial policy in an unwinnable war. Scholars interested in Tarleton should read Knight’s book before consulting other Tarleton biographies.
Jean C. O’Connor
David O. Stewart’s George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father (Dutton, 2021)is a substantial yet intimate portrait of a most unusual leader. Stewart’s many insights into Washington’s character and accomplishments flow from his wide and deep scrutiny of the leader’s actions and relationships. I found the book incredibly hard to put down. Stewart seemed to anticipate my questions, bringing in information that I had always wondered about concerning Washington and his times.
Derrick E. Lapp
Andrew Waters, To the End of the World: Nathanael Greene, Charles Cornwallis, and the Race to the Dan (Westholme, 2020). Retreats aren’t sexy. Battle, siege, raids: those are the things that tend to excite readers of military history. We love attack. But one of the most significant maneuvers of the American Revolution was the retreat by Gen. Nathanael Greene and his force through North Carolina in 1781—the storied “Race to the Dan”—which wore down the British Army under Charles Cornwallis and preserved the war effort for the Americans in the South. Andrew Waters does a fantastic job detailing the events and explaining the impact of this retreat. I appreciated his enthusiasm for the subject and tend to agree with his expansion of the “Race to the Dan” to encompass the entire Piedmont Campaign.
My favorite new book on the Revolution is Katherine Carté’s Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History (University of North Carolina Press, 2021), one of the finalists for JAR’s Book of the Year Award. Carté explores institutional Protestant religion during the Revolution and considers how the Revolution influenced religion instead of just focusing on how religion affected the Revolution. By putting the story of religion into a transatlantic, imperial framework through extensive research in archives on both sides of the Atlantic, she brings a fresh perspective to the significance of the Revolution for religious networks.
Gregory J. W. Urwin
My favorite recent book covering the Revolutionary War era is Stephen Conway, The British Army 1714-1783: An Institutional History (Pen & Sword Military, 2021). Since the 1980s, Conway has produced several well-researched, meticulously written articles in the William & Mary Quarterly and English Historical Review that breathed fresh air into the scholarship on British participation in the War of Independence. This book covers the development of the British Army from the Accession of George I through Yorktown. It captures the essence of how that army functioned and demonstrates that most successful officers thought of their men as thinking beings.
Purchase any of these books from your favorite independent bookstore or wherever you buy books!