Please recommend book(s) on early US history with the emphasis on . . .

I am Canadian and have somehow never really become informed about early US history. Although I have a basic familiarity with the events of the time and some of the key individuals, I want to learn more about the subject, the players, and the ideas of the era.

That said, I do have a few constraints and focuses.

I am most interested to learn more about the US in the years ~1750 to ~1800. What I think I’m looking for is a book that recounts the facts (obviously) but also spends ample time providing the ideological background and framework for seminal developments such as The Declaration of Independence. I am especially keen to learn more about the thoughts and ideas of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Paine, et al., and what their individual views were of things such as the Revolution itself, and the drafting and contents of the inchoate Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

If possible, the book(s) should be readable - not a dense, scholarly tome, but something that can be read for enjoyment as much as enlightenment. And, truthfully, despite the hours I spend on these boards, I don’t have a lot of extra time; in other words, if possible, I’m looking for shorter and more concise as opposed to longer and exhaustive.

So the ideal choice should include:

  • chronicle/description of the events (ca. 1750 - 1800)
  • introduction to the key players and especially to their ideas (about liberty, rights, ‘freedom’, etc.)
  • readable and concise

Finally, at the risk of sounding prematurely ungrateful, I don’t think a long list of books would help me; how would I ever know which to read? No, I would much rather have ONE or TWO key choices.

Do you know anything that fits the bill?


Novus Ordo Seclorum by Forrest McDonald. This is a book I give to my top AmGovt. students as extra reading.

Wow! That looks like an outstanding book.

This isn’t false modesty; it’s real - but, might the book be too “advanced” for someone like me?

Thanks so much!

No problem. Like I said, my “sharp” high school students handle it just fine. You already have the background in British philosophy and government from your high school classes in the Frozen North. Nothing new there. You’ll have no trouble with it.

If I were in your shoes I would locate copies of the first few volumes of A History Of Us, by Joy Hakim. It is for middle-schoolers but so excellent it can be profitably read by adults. Published by Oxford University Press. 1999 I think.

You also might try Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and The Federalist Papers (collection of psuedonymous essays by James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton). They are surprisingly readable.

Last suggestion, rent the 2008 HBO mini series, “John Adams”. It plunges you into that world. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

I’d probably recommend starting with a book on the Enlightenment (particularly, the Scottish Enlightenment).

I haven’t read them, but something like this, perhaps?

I’ll second the suggestion for The Federalist Papers, and I agree that they are quite readable.

Karl, as another Canadian who wanted to know about the history of our neighbors to the south, I will say that I got a great deal out of U.S. History for Dummies. If you have zero academic experience with US history on its own (let’s face it; the only US history we get is when it impacted us, such as the War of 1812; and further, it is rarely offered in Canadian high schools, and is generally only taken by history majors at Canadian universities), it will give you a good basic overview of events, chronologically ordered. Commentary is kept to a minimum; at least, compared to other sources; so hundreds of years of history pass by quickly. But here’s the key: If something piques your interest, you now know enough in terms of dates, places, events, and people to find other, more detailed, sources with fuller details and commentary. This was the approach I took; and while I am long past using my copy of U.S. History for Dummies, I found it a good place to start.

A good introduction to the characters is Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis. Ellis is a top historian - you may want to read his many bios of other founding fathers after this - but I’d start here. The personalities determined the stances of the arguments in many cases, and also explains their actions from before the Revolution through the first fifty years.

For introductions to the documents and ideas, I’d recommend Garry Wills. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is a great place to start. His collection of essays, A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, is uneven but will you background on some of the insanities of today’s partisan scene. I see on Amazon Explaining America: The Federalist, which is about the series of essays Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote to persuade people to adopt the Constitution, seminal works of American thinking. I haven’t read this one, though.

It’s hard to write a bad book about the Constitutional Convention, because nothing in history can beat it for the drama of ideas. A good recent one I’ve read is Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Christopher Collier. Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787 is a classic and available for a penny.

There are millions of biographies of the founding fathers. I’d stay away from them until and unless you decide to get deeper in. The 900-page tomes by people like Ron Chernow or David McCullough (even though he writes much better than Chernow) will sink you like a stone. If you feel you must read individual bios, I’d strongly recommend you start with the American Presidents series. They are short - 200 page - but very lively bios by major names and try to cover the major points rather than try to detail every thing they did every day.

You ‘guys’ are great. These ALL look terrific! So many to choose from. I can’t go wrong.

I really appreciate the thought and effort you’ve put into this. Truly. Thank you!

American Creation, by Joseph Ellis.
I’m not a huge student of the period, but I thought it did a good job of covering issues of the main personalities and politics involved with the key issues and decisions between 1775 and 1803.

You are quite welcome, Karl. Keep us posted as to your independent studies–I’m curious as to how one does on their own (as I did). Enjoy your studies and good luck!