Top Ten: American history books to read this summer
1) George Washington’s Military Genius
By: David R. Palmer
Gen. David Palmer, who is a former superintendent of West Point, makes the case the “The Father of Our Country” was not just a good man and able leader, but a military genius. The always underrated generalship of Washington is highlighted in this book as Palmer explains the four stages of the American Revolution and how Washington’s strategy changed to adapt to new circumstances.
After reading “George Washington’s Military Genius” you will have a greater appreciation for Washington’s command talent, and on top of that you will realize that he was not merely a “lucky” general who was successful because victory was nearly assured. There are concrete reasons why Washington sent three very able British generals home in defeat and why he still remains Britain’s most feared historic foe. Richard Henry Lee was right, Washington really was “first in war.”
2) John Randolph of Roanoke
By: David Johnson
Few Americans today know who John Randolph was, but David Johnson brings this incredibly eccentric and insightful early 19th century American statesman to life in his biography “John Randolph of Roanoke”. Randolph, a Virginia planter, once said that he was an “aristocrat” because he loved liberty but hated equality and was a favorite of conservative thinker Russell Kirk.
Randolph was a conservative in the Southern agrarian tradition and a true traditionalist. More “Jeffersonian” than Thomas Jefferson, Randolph became critical of Jefferson’s policies as president and claimed that the Sage of Monticello had betrayed his strict constructionist and limited government principles. Randolph would end up as neither a Jeffersonian Republican nor a Federalist but as a man alone, a “Tertium Quid”.
3) The American Presidency: An Intellectual History
By: Forrest McDonald
Given the importance of the 2012 presidential election it is vital for Americans to understand what makes a president great and what the Founders sought when they created the office of the chief executive. Forrest McDonald, one of the greatest early American historians sets up the intellectual groundwork that the Founding Fathers used to create what he sees as the most important and successful secular institution in human history. In “The American Presidency,” McDonald traces the changes, both subtle and profound, that the presidency has undergone throughout American history.
Although McDonald believes that the quality of the men who have occupied the White House has generally declined since the presidency of the only man who didn’t occupy the White House (George Washington), but that the institution actually remains the closest to its original purposes compared to the other two branches of the federal government.
4) Six Frigates
By: Ian Toll
An incredibly entertaining and in-depth book about the spectacular if uneven birth of the U.S. Navy. One of the first instances of a “pork barrel” program in American history, the John Adams Administration approved the building of six heavy frigates in six separate American ports. Some of these ships would go on to be the most famous and successful and American history, and some of their captains would go on to be gallant and heroic champions of American naval might and prowess.
Built with the sturdy Southern Live Oak, slightly bigger than their European frigate counterparts and commandeered by all volunteer crews, the U.S. Navy was perhaps the finest, ship-to-ship, in the world. British captains and the British people were stunned by ship-to-ship losses to American ship in the War of 1812, an occurrence that hadn’t happened to the British Navy in decades.
“Six Frigates” is perhaps the strongest in parts that describe the wars with the Barbary pirates. The heroic sinking of the U.S.S. Philadelphia by American sailor Stephen Decatur is almost too unbelievable to imagine. The legendary British Admiral Horatio Nelson, who is often considered the greatest naval commander in British history, called Decatur’s action, “The most bold and daring act of the age.”
Few books combine such in-depth detail and riveting narratives like “Six Frigates”.
5) Founding Rivals
By: Chris DeRose
James Madison and James Monroe couldn’t be any more different in appearance and temperament. Monroe was a tall, handsome man who had been a member of the Virginia militia and been with George Washington when he crossed the Delaware to fight the Battle of Trenton. Madison was a small, diminutive man who spent much of the Revolutionary War reading about the history of building nations and republics.
These two great Founding Fathers were both friends of Thomas Jefferson and adherents to Jefferson’s political ideas, but ran against each other in the first wave of federal congressional elections. In “Founding Rivals,” Chris DeRose, makes a convincing argument that if Madison had lost, the passage of the Bill of Rights and the fate of the Union would have been put in jeopardy.
6) Promised Land, Crusader State
By: Walter MacDougal
Americans are beginning to look to the Founding Fathers to correct current domestic problems, however, so far there is a serious lack of interest in or knowledge about America’s early foreign policy. “Promised Land, Crusader State,” by Water McDougal, traces American foreign policy from before the founding and up until the modern age. McDougall busts the myth that America was an isolationist country in the 18th and 19th centuries, and instead argues that foreign policy was the primary concern of the federal government during that time.
The title of the book contrasts the transition in American foreign policy from a one that was focused mostly on protecting national self-interest and liberty at home, to one that became aggressive in changing the world in its image. John Quincy Adams once said of America in an 1821 speech, “She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” McDougall would argue that America needs to return to that doctrine.
7) Where They Stand
By: Robert Merry
The presidential rating game is one of the favorite pastimes of historians, academics, media pundits and the American people. Robert Merry tries to include all of those people in his new book “Where They Stand.” Merry criticizes academic polls, especially the famous presidential rating system used by liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for not taking into account the public opinion of Americans both now and during the time that each president held office. On top of being an incomplete gauge of a presidential performance, Merry notes a distinct liberal bias in the Schlesinger poll, which includes mostly liberal professors and some Democrat politicians, but a miniscule number of people that could be considered “conservative”.
Some presidents, previously derided, get a particularly favorable spotlight on their careers as chief executive. James Madison, usually criticized for his ineptness in the War of 1812, gets high marks from Merry, who says that Madison acted bravely in the war (he was the last acting president to see combat), brought it to a successful conclusion, and continued his party’s dominance through his successor’s term. Merry also revives Calvin Coolidge, who governed the country in a time of incredible prosperity, and his predecessor, Warren G. Harding, who revived the stagnant economy left to him by Woodrow Wilson and produced the greatest yearly increase in GDP in all of American history.
“Where They Stand” is both entertaining and informative, without being overly academic or pretentious in evaluation of the men who have held the highest office in the nation.
“The Age of Reagan” is less of a biography, and more of an overview of the rise of the conservatism in America from 1964-1989 through the career of its greatest champion, Ronald Reagan.
Hayward makes a strong case that while Reagan and conservatives didn’t accomplish all of they things that they wanted to do, they nevertheless dramatically changed the course of the country, and indeed, world history. Reagan became, over time, the perfect symbol of a movement that had been building for decades and the election of 1980 became the high tide, the greatest triumph for the movement.
It took decades for Reagan to become the Reagan that conservatives love and admire today, and he spent many years in the political wilderness. However the skills that Reagan built up through his time as head of the Screen Actors Guild and the change in ideas he had throughout his life, going from being a New Deal Democrat to a budget-balancing, tax raising Republican, and then ultimately to a pro-growth, supply-side Republican, made Reagan the perfect man to lead in the 1980′s
While the two volumes are thick and a bit scholarly, anyone interested in in Reagan’s life and impact should pick up these two volumes.
9) We Still Hold These Truths
By: Matt Spalding
Matt Spalding, a leading American history scholar at the Heritage Foundation think tank, argues persuasively in favor of the values of America’s Founding Fathers. “We Still Hold These Truths” is a deeply insightful book about the philosophy of the founding, which was based on classical liberal beliefs about self-evident eternal truths about humanity. Spalding uses both history and philosophy to show that the Founders got human nature right and that modern Americans would be wise to listen to their council.
“We Still Hold these Truths” is an excellent introduction for anyone who wishes to understand the ideas that animated the American Revolution and formed the foundation of American exceptionalism. Spalding is clearly a student of Harry Jaffa, a famous conservative historian, and his version of American history, placing the Declaration of Independence at the cornerstone of the founding, even above the Constitution. It is a powerful argument that ties in the ideas of the Revolution with American history, weaving a coherent American philosophy based on adherence to natural rights and natural law that, to Spalding, holds its fundamental truth now and forever.
10) Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
By: S.C. Gwynn
Any American that has seen the John Wayne movie, The Searchers, knows the basic story of Cynthia Parker. Parker was a white, American girl, who witnessed her entire family slaughtered by Comanche indians and then spent most of her live living as a Comanche. Years later, Parker was tracked down by whites, who unsuccessfully tried to reintegrate her into American society; they failed. Parker’s son, Quanah, whom she had with a Comanche, became the last, great Comanche war chief, wreaking havoc for settlers an the American plains.
S.C. Gwynn’s gripping narrative about the life and times of Parker, her son, and the men who tracked them both is surrounded by an in depth history of the Comanche tribe, a powerful people to be reckoned with. The Comanche were often called the “best light cavalry in the world.” The power of the Comanche only broke with the invention of the rapidly firing, Colt six-shooter, which nullified the Comanche skill with a bow and arrow on horseback.
“Empire of the Summer Moon” makes no attempt to soften the image of the people on the plain; it is certainly not a book for the squeamish. It is, however, a highly entertaining and insightful look at a narrow stretch in American history, that ended the Comanche “empire” that had long dominated the American midwest.