How do we make sense of it all?
Well, in an effort to offer our readers some context for these crazy times, we’ve compiled a “Suggested Readings” list. We asked our historians:
What’s one book you would recommend for people that might give them some useful context for looking at our current troubled times?
Here’s what some of them had to say:
Sarah Kay Bierle:
The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, a short collection of essays edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan.
Sean Michael Chick:
I almost went with Frederickson’s The Inner Civil War, but I am going with Michael F. Holt’s The Political Crisis of the 1850s. It is not an easy read, but it offers a good overview of the politics of the era, with original arguments about the role of the parties, sectional tension, slavery, and the importance of other issues that are often ignored by most historians. I also recommend this one because we need more historians who go against the grain during our ongoing political crisis.
In The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War, author Joanne B. Freeman draws back the curtains on the story of physical violence on the U.S. Congress floor. Antebellum Washington was rife with conflict. When debate broke down, Congress members drew pistols, waved Bowie knives, threatened, flipped desks, and attempted all-out Congressional brawls. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery. Author Freeman’s dramatic accounts tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. One result is a new understanding of American democracy’s workings and the bonds of Union on the eve of their greatest peril. Another is that the alert reader will immediately notice that Congress has only nominally cleaned up its act and that yesterday’s pressures are just as intense today. (Read Meg’s full review of the book here.)
Chris Heisey (seconded by David Dixon):
Dr. David Blight’s Race and Reunion is a very good treatment of post-Civil War remembrance of the war, which excluded justice and healing racial divisions. Instead, valor and unity were our nation’s focus after the war. And Dr. Blight argues it remains our goal rather than a deeper racial healing still needed. I very much appreciated this book, and it educated me in a helpful way. It’s a thought-filled book.
I’ll also say Race and Reunion. The book takes us beyond the battlefields and really opened my eyes as to how conscious decisions by the veterans would affect what was remembered and what was forgotten about the Civil War. There has been a spate of memory studies in recent years but this one still stands head and shoulders above the rest, in my opinion.
I recommend Lincoln and Douglas, The Debate That Defined America by Allen C. Guelzo. It is a superb illustration of a nation divided with citizens talking past each other as they proceed from incompatible premises. Neither can admit error although one must. Douglas, no fan of slavery, tries to find middle ground and fails miserably. The argument drives to the extremes and motivates radicals. Sound familiar?
I’d recommend three. In no particular order, they are:
John Adams by David McCullough. John Adams was one of the key founders of the United States, and sat at the vortex of many of the important concepts and decisions that made this country. He also was a one-term president who peacefully handed over power after losing he re-election bid. His life illuminates much about the United States and how the country ticks.
Tribe by Sebastian Junger. This is a meditation on the value of community and belonging to a larger whole. He talks about many different communities, from platoons in combat to larger societies. At the end he offers important commentary on American society today. It is a quick but very insightful read.
If Elected by American Heritage. This book focuses on the unsuccessful presidential candidates from 1796 through 1972. It analyzes why each one lost, and discusses the various issues and national debates and internal conflicts that shaped each race. As a general overview of American history and society, it is a good introduction.
My first recommendation would be to read the Constitution for yourself. A lot of people wrap themselves in the Constitution these days, but their words and actions make it apparent they’ve probably not even read it or, if they did, they misunderstood it entirely or they’re misinterpreting it entirely. Here’s a transcription from the National Archives.
For additional context on the Constitution, I suggest The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution by David O. Steward.
A couple other books:
- The Field of Blood by Joanne Freeman (read what I wrote about it last summer)
- How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson
- It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein
I would recommend Remembering the Civil War by Caroline Janney. I found it to be of great help in understanding the current political environment surrounding monuments and memorialization. She critically analyzes the roles of Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the United Daughters of the Confederacy and how they spearheaded most of the Confederate monuments we see in public spaces.
I’d say Joanne Freeman’s The Field of Blood, about violence in Congress in the lead up to the Civil War. It reminds us that hyper-partisanship is nothing new, but if we don’t figure this out, nothing good will come of it. A really good read.
- The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman (2018). A look at the violence, and threats of violence, in Congress in the years leading up to the Civil War. Violence, and the threat of violence, was used in an attempt to intimidate anti-slavery, mostly northerners into compliance and silence by the shrinking pro-slave power within congress.
- Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 by John Ferling. The first real partisan election in our nation’s history between one party who favored strong central government, and another who saw themselves as the true heirs to the revolutionary spirit of 1776. This was a campaign that was full of scare tactics, personal invective, vilification and in the case of Hamilton, turning on the head of his own party.. The final results dragged on, and the outgoing President did not attend the inaugurations of his successor.
Both books also discussed a highly partisan press full of personal attacks and untruths.
One of the more striking images of the January 6th storming of the Capitol revolves around the presence of the Confederate battle flag. This has garnered a lot of heated discussion both on ECW and elsewhere. In order to better understand the social dynamics of Reconstruction and reconciliation, I highly recommend Caroline Janney’s Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation. We’re still reckoning with the contested memory of the American Civil War, and Janney does a great job of breaking down the creation of many of the central “myths” in Civil War memory as well as asserting that it has always been disputed.
Kristopher D. White:
In the order I would suggest:
- The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer.
- The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers.
- Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory by David W. Blight
- The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Joanne B. Freeman
- Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture by Karen L. Cox
I’ve picked back up with James P. Muehlberger’s The 116: The True Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Lost Guard. It’s a history of James Lane’s Frontier Guard which went to Washington in the immediate aftermath of the firing on Fort Sumter to protect President Lincoln and the U.S. Capital until troops could be mobilized and arrive there.
Cecily Nelson Zander:
For me the answer is usually in David M. Potter—and at this moment I’m finding “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” The American Historical Review 67, No. 4 (June, 1962): 924-50 to be helpful. Potter’s essay tells us about how people in the past possessed multiple, sometimes conflicting, loyalties. For this reason, someone like Robert E. Lee would have thought of himself as both Southern and American in 1860, without it seeming contradictory. For me, the essay reminds us that history is almost always more complex than we realize, and then we have to apply that same eye for complexity (rather than reductionism) to understanding our present moment.
Since so many if us recommended it…
In 2011, ECW did a short series commemorating the tenth anniversary of the publication of Race & Reunion. Historians James Broomall, Chris Mackowski, Matt Stanley, and Ashley Whitehead offered their thoughts on the book and its impact. Read the series here.
And of course, there’s always the John Coski Classic, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem. Read ECW’s interview with John about that book here.