Help a political newbie better understand US history
April 2, 2007 11:26 AM   Subscribe

What books should I read to get a crash course in US political history?

Over the past few years (since reaching voting age), I've found myself becoming more interested in politics, which lead me to realize my own ignorance about US political history. I'm interested in learning about how we got to where we are today, past presidents, and major points of American political history. Can anyone recommend any well written and complete books (or websites also) that will help get me up to speed? Preferably objective and not biased to either side if possible, as I don't want to only learn one side of what happened. Also, I already keep up pretty well with current news, so I'm not really interested in that. Thanks!
posted by fishmasta to Law & Government (26 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:35 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Teaching Company has a great set of audio lectures, you might enjoy them:

History of the United States
The US economy in the 20th Century
Intpreting the 20th Century
posted by blue_beetle at 11:46 AM on April 2, 2007

Considering Zinn's book is referred to as a "classic of revisionist American history", it may not meet your goals here.
posted by smackfu at 11:51 AM on April 2, 2007

Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. There's nothing revisionist about it. Nothing controversial. It's just told from a different perspective.
posted by tom_g at 11:57 AM on April 2, 2007

OP: I don't want to only learn one side of what happened.

BabyBalrog: A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

This is not a good answer. Zinn's cool, but there is absolutely no question that he is very biased. It's like recommending Chomsky to someone who wants an objective treatment of 20th century international relations theory.

I would recommend Interpretations of American History: Patterns and Perspectives, Grob and Billias, eds. It may be more in depth than you are looking for (it's a graduate historiography textbook), but it goes through every major issue in American history, from settlement to the present day, and presents two competing historians' interpretations of these issues, along with a historiographical essay for each one. You will learn the nuances and trends in American history better this way than by reading any one author, and along the way you'll acquire a sense of how Americans have conceptualized their own history throughout the last 150 years.
posted by nasreddin at 12:01 PM on April 2, 2007

If you do read Zinn, please, please, don't stop there. He's presenting one side of an evolving and unsettled debate. On the other side, the best authors are Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Boorstin; they're brilliant scholars, though often dismissed as simply expressions of some amorphous 50s ethos.
posted by nasreddin at 12:07 PM on April 2, 2007

I'm pretty sure my AP US History class used The American Pageant as it's text book, and it's a great book - some of the quotes are amazing, and the writing style was entertaining.
posted by fermezporte at 12:11 PM on April 2, 2007

I'd agree that Zinn doesn't meet the criteria but if you're interested in US political history you should still read it (probably best to wait till you've read a more balanced history).
posted by muteh at 12:18 PM on April 2, 2007

On a completely subjective level, I really liked Hugh Brogan's single-volume Penguin History of the United States of America. It takes the full stretch of American history and politics, from the colonial settlements to the 1970s, and so has a certain air of superficiality at times because of its broad remit; having said that, if you're looking for a place to start (as I was), before going on to delve further into specifics, then this might be it.
posted by hydatius at 12:33 PM on April 2, 2007

All history is subjective. All history texts are necessarily one-sided. I think Zinn covers the greatest amount of territory in the shortest amount of time. This is why I recommended it. Had nothing to do with someone else's perception of his political biases.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:09 PM on April 2, 2007

I've found David McCullough's presidential biographies ("Truman", "John Adams") to be extremely readable and compelling. While they are not historical overviews, they are portraits of two fascinating figures, and a great way to get into the history of two very important periods of American history.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 1:50 PM on April 2, 2007

Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People.

The Hugh Brogan book looks pretty good, too.
posted by russilwvong at 2:00 PM on April 2, 2007

I like Zinn too but he assumes that you have a certain familiarity with the traditional American history curriculum. So I think the recommendation, while well-intentioned, is a bad one for fishmasta.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 2:17 PM on April 2, 2007

I second nasredding on Hofstadter, and would particularly recommend the American Political Tradition. The book is structured as a series of chapters of 30-50 pages apiece that each focus on a single person or group who exemplified their era. Its engagingly written and pretty unapologetic in challenging some of the popular conceptions of history.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 2:24 PM on April 2, 2007

Seconding Daniel Boorstin - I've never been "good" at history, but find his books very readable and informative.
posted by estherbester at 3:24 PM on April 2, 2007

Try "Cartoon History of the United States" by Larry Gonick. It's an excellent quick overview.
posted by Marky at 3:42 PM on April 2, 2007

I thought Out of Our Past was great. It's a single-volume book covering American history from the first settlement. I found it pretty unbiased. It was my first American history read. However, if you really want only the recent developments leading to the political system today, then this is not the book for you, since (1) it's old, and (2) its pages are somewhat evenly distributed over time.
posted by bread-eater at 5:12 PM on April 2, 2007

History of the United States by Charles and Mary Beard - written in the early 1900s. I'm in no position to judge whether or not it is accurate, but it's certainly and interesting read. And it's free.
posted by perpetualstroll at 6:45 PM on April 2, 2007

Sean Wilentz: Chants Democratic
and then the more recent The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
and then (edited by Wilentz) Major Problems in the Early Republic, 1787-1848

If you still want more Early America, I also suggest American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis by James Roger Sharp.

Disclaimer: I am taking the course "Age of Jefferson" with the fantastic historian Howard Rock this semester. He has written and co-authored very interesting books about the Artisan in early America, especially in New York City, and all the books metioned above are texts for the class, except Chants Democratic.
posted by bilabial at 6:52 PM on April 2, 2007

Oh, and any history is going to have somebias. That is the nature of history.

Might want to check into historiography, which is the study of how historians "write history." An interesting text in this context is the "Midwife's Tale," which looks at the diaries of Martha Ballard, which for years were dismissed as 1) indecipherable and 2) just women's stuff.
A historian has figured them out, mapped a whole town based on them, and shed some light on documented court cases that happened during the time. Does this make revisionist history? Yes and no.

I don't like the term "revisionist" because it suggests that the things brought to light didn't really happen.

And one last thing. History is usually "written by the winners."
posted by bilabial at 7:00 PM on April 2, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, I know there's some bias to everything. I'd just like to keep it to a minimum. But great suggestions everyone! I'll definitely by hitting up my library soon!
posted by fishmasta at 7:46 PM on April 2, 2007

Howard Zinn, come on. Check out the Making of the President 1960 instead.
posted by Kirklander at 9:53 PM on April 2, 2007

I'll join the chorus and say that while Zinn's a helluva read, I wouldn't take it as a starting point. (Get a framework of your own, pick up People's History, then watch the fireworks start.)

If you want an accessible (and very interesting) book on the Founders, a good jumping off point might be Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers, which is a series of stories about those oft-referred-to-by-damn-near-everybody-in-politics characters. (If memory serves, it picked up the Pulitzer in '01 or thereabouts.)

Also, while it's dense going, The Federalist Papers are well worth the effort. Those 85 essays (written by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay) have done more to shape American law than you could imagine. They're also some of the most effective propaganda in American history.

For my money, there's a lot of value to studying early American history--our impressions of that era have shaped our decisionmaking ever since.
posted by theoddball at 10:04 PM on April 2, 2007

We did both Brogan and Morison (Vol. 1) in my high school class. The teacher in the classroom next door to us used American Pageant. I don't remember much (nor did I read either entirely, but I already had a pretty good grasp on that sort of thing); even so, I had a ton of respect for both of those teachers, so if it was good enough for them, it should be fine.

FWIW, Brogan is a British academic in American studies, so his work reflects something of an outsider's perspective, which might help as far as bias goes.
posted by SuperNova at 11:11 PM on April 2, 2007

The cartoon history of the US by Gonick is good. I recall that it is somewhat biased, but as others have said, that's very hard to avoid in history.

To start the beginning of it all, Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia is a readable account of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

As others have said, Boorstin is good.

I would also recommend Michael Genovese's The Power of the American Presidency, which is a good summary of each presidency from 1789 until 2000.
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 12:42 PM on April 3, 2007

As an early American history professor, I can suggest three books that would be of great interest to anyone curious about political thought during the Revolutionary and Early Republic era.

First, I would recommend Jack Rakove's Originial Meanings, which discussions the creation and ratification of the Constitution. Rakove convincingly argues that the search for "original intent" (a big issue in constitutional debates today) is fruitless, if only because there were so many original intents--supporters of the Constitution disagreed about its meaning from the very beginning. I assign this book to my graduate students, but it's very readable for everyone, I think--it won the Pulitzer in 1996.

For another perspective, you might try Saul Cornell's The Other Founders, which examines Anti-Federalist thought and its legacy in American history. Cornell challenges many old myths about Federalists and Anti-Federalists without coming off as debunking heroes or celebrating the little guy. He makes a case for the Anti-Federalists ultimately having a greater influence on American political thought than their opponents during the ratification debates.

And finally, Gordon Wood's Creation of the American Republic is the most in depth study of American political ideology during the era leading up to the Constitutional Convention. At 675 pages, it is not for the faint of heart. But it's essential who wants to understand the intellectual roots of American politics.
posted by jsmolenski at 5:48 PM on April 4, 2007

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