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Five books for Presidents Day

By John Ferling

Picking out five books on the founding of the nation, and its leaders, is not an easy task. I could easily have listed twenty-five that were important to me. But here goes:

Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (New York, Oxford University Press, 1968)

This book remains the best single volume history of the American Revolution through the Declaration of Independence. This isn’t flag waving, but a warts and all treatment in which Jensen demonstrates that many of the now revered Founders feared and resisted the insurgency that led to American independence.

Merrill Jensen, The American Revolution Within America (New York, New York University Press, 1974)

Obviously I admire the work of Merrill Jensen. Lectures delivered to university audiences quite often are not especially readable, but this collection of three talks that he delivered at New York University is a wonderful read. Jensen pulls no punches. He shows what some Founders sought to gain from the Revolution and what others hoped to prevent, and he makes clear that those who wished (“conspired” might be a better word) to stop the political and social changes unleashed by the American Revolution were in the forefront of those who wrote and ratified the US Constitution.

Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, Knopf, 1992)

While this book is far from a complete history of the American Revolution (and it never pretended to be), it chronicles how America was changed by the Revolution. I think the first eighty or so pages were among the best ever written in detailing how people thought and behaved prior to the American Revolution. I always asked the students in my introductory US History survey classes to read that section of the book.

James Thomas Flexner, George Washington and the New Nation, 1783-1793 (Boston, Little Brown, 1970) and George Washington: Anguish and Farewell, 1793-1799 (Boston, Little Brown, 1972)

Alright, I cheated. There are two books here, bringing my total number of books to six. Flexner was a popular writer who produced a wonderful four volume life of Washington in the 1960s and 1970s. These two volumes chronicle Washington following the War of Independence, and they offer a rich and highly readable account of Washington’s presidency and the nearly three years left to him following his years as chief executive.

Peter Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1993)

This collection of fifteen original essays by assorted scholars scrutinizes the nooks and crannies of Thomas Jefferson’s life and thought. As in any such collection, some essays are better than others, but on the whole this is a good starting point for understanding Jefferson and what scholars have thought of him. Though these essays were published twenty years ago, most remain surprisingly fresh and modern.

John Ferling is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of West Georgia. He is a leading authority on late 18th and early 19th century American history. His new book, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, will be published in October. He is the author of many books, including Independence, The Ascent of George Washington, Almost a MiracleSetting the World Ablaze, and A Leap in the Dark. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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