Happy Fourth of July from Revolver News!
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American history has become a battleground. Nikole Hannah Jones, the creator of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, has bragged about getting a Notre Dame history degree without taking a single European history class. Reading her takes on American history, it’s not clear that she took any classes about that either. Nevertheless, Jones’ ethnonarcissist and buffoonish “everything is about racism” take on American history has become the mainstream narrative. Even before George Floyd took his last fentanyl hit, the 1619 Project had become public school fodder in Chicago, Buffalo, Newark, and Washington D.C.
But the battle goes well beyond school textbooks. Visit a bookstore or take a class at a university, and you will be bombarded with content that reflects America’s particular neuroses of the present. Of the past fifteen Pulitzer Prizes in History, nine went to books that that were fundamentally about the history of black/white relations in America. When politics is the top priority, it’s unsurprising that the books themselves are often dull, and the scholarship half-rate.
But there’s good news: America wasn’t always so nuts. Not only does America have four hundreds years of history to be proud of, but it has plenty of great history writers too. And while most of these great writers have died, their work remains.
To honor and celebrate the Fourth, here are Revolver’s nine picks for books to read to get the real story of America’s history.
1. The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon Wood
Gordon Wood has been called “the favorite historian of America’s liberal establishment.” So why is he here? Well, first, Wood is old enough that he hails from an era where progressive historians didn’t shut off their brains. He’s been a big critic of the 1619 Project and related efforts to craft “activist” interpretations of America’s founding. And second, well, Wood’s book is good.
In 1750, the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies were for the most part monarchists and content British subjects. By 1820, the newly-born Americans were the proud inhabitants of a new nation, the vanguard of a republican, democratic ideology that would soon dominate the globe. They were “the most egalitarian, most materialistic, most individualistic – and most evangelical Christian – society in Western History,” and in the Jacksonian era they would become even more so. How that change happened is the heart of Wood’s book. The American Revolution was not just a military revolt, but a social revolution that changed America to its core.
2. The True History of the American Revolution, by Sydney George Fisher
This is how revisionist history is supposed to work.
Fisher’s account of the American rebellion, written in 1902 but still perfectly readable today, is an unabashedly Tory one. Fisher offers what few American accounts of the revolution bother to have: The British perspective. Fisher makes it clear that the clash between Whig and Tory in Parliament was just as important as the battle between Loyalist and Patriot in America. Fisher highlights some of the inconsistencies of the Patriot side, and makes a strong case that, for a great many participants in the war, American independence was more about money than about political ideals. And finally, he puts forward the unusual thesis that, rather than the colonies truly winning their independence (with an assist from France), Britain’s commanders likely threw away a winning position — perhaps even intentionally! Despite its title, Fisher’s book isn’t the only story of America’s founding, but it’s impossible to grasp the full story without it.
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For another dissenting view of the Revolution, this time by an eyewitness, consider reading Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion, by Massachusetts judge and loyalist Peter Oliver.
3. Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer
Today it is fashionable to describe America as a nation of immigrants, and emphasize the role of Ellis Island or more recent immigration in shaping American culture. But America had a culture long before any Neapolitans passed through New York Harbor and well before a single peasant from Oaxaca crossed the Rio Grande. The bedrock of American culture is British, and it is the different origins of British immigrants to the future United States that explain America’s original cultural mores which still exert enormous influence to this day.
Fischer identifies four key cultural groupings, or “folkways,” in early America: The Puritans in New England, the Cavaliers and gentry to Virginia, the Quakers in the Mid-Atlantic, and the Scottish-English borderlanders into the backcountry. Reading through Fischer’s account, it’s easy to see how their image remains printed on America today: Massachusetts Puritanism — educated and egalitarian, but suffocatingly self-righteous and prone to (literal) witch hunts — lives on in today’s baizuo. The borderlanders — wild, freedom-loving, and well-armed — gave America both the Wild West and modern MAGA energy. The tale of these British settlers who truly built America is the only one nobody wants to tell today, but for that very reason it is the one that we all should know.
4. Comanches, by T.R. Fehrenbach
Any book by Fehrenbach would be a worthy addition to this list (check you his history of Texas if you can), but his description of America’s most terrifying Indian tribe is his greatest work.
For decades, progressive have created a cult of suffering around America’s native peoples. They are reduced to little more than passive, helpless victims, perpetually exploited and denied all agency. This myth serves nobody. It strips today’s Indians of the pride they should feel in their own history. It delegitimizes America and encourages hatred between its races. But most importantly for our purposes, it’s boring.
Fehrenbach does not fall into today’s traps. The Comanche were anything but passive victims. They were a terrifying force who exerted an enormous influence on the entirety of the North American continent. Mere decades after first encountering the horse, the Comanche mastered its use. They swept down from modern Colorado and Kansas, crushed countless rival tribes, and created a vast plains empire called the Comancheria. By the 1800s, they were so powerful they were raiding across the Rio Grande into Mexico, and European control of Texas was almost entirely lost (in fact, the Comanche threat is why Mexico initially invited American settlers into Texas). The Comanches could be astonishingly violent, and so their defeat was astonishingly violent as well, but Fehrenbach never pulls his punches or retreats into cheap moralizing.
5. The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote
No list of great American historical works is complete without Foote’s masterpiece. Across three epic volumes, Foote used a novelist’s talents to weave a gripping narrative of the most critical period in all of American history. Though a Southerner, Foote could recognize the heroism, genius, and absurdity on both sides of the conflict, and then elevate them into a work that can only be called monumental. Foote’s 3,000-page trilogy has been called the American Iliad, but while Homer wrote of gods and myths, Foote’s heroes were epic men of flesh and blood.
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America todays shamefully obliterates and distorts its Civil War heritage. But in Foote, the 620,000 men who fell in America’s deadliest conflict have a monument that can never be destroyed.
Before Robert Caro, there was Douglas Southall Freeman. The Virginia son of a Civil War veteran had a legendary work ethic and produced not one but two of the most comprehensive biographies ever written. Before Freeman, scholarship on Robert E. Lee was a mishmash of war memoirs and half-baked hagiographies. Freeman did the monumental work of assembling and reading every primary source he could and producing a definitive four-volume account of Lee’s life. The sheer scope of its detail — Freeman even lists the books Lee checked out of the West Point library — means it will never be surpassed, and the same goes for Freeman’s staggering seven-volume biography of America’s first president (Revolver readers who work day jobs will be glad to know that both biographies have abridgments that are easily available).
Freeman wrote for a different era, when Americans still dared to view their nation’s greatest leaders as heroes. If his books have a flaw, it is simply that he reveres his subjects too much. But this does nothing to diminish his literary excellence or the awe-inspiring scope of his scholarly achievement.
7. The Martial Spirit, by Walter Millis
Revolver has had much to say about the failings of the Globalist American Empire. Well, if globalism is the root cause of America’s present problems, then it’s worth going back 120 years ago, to the time when America became a global power. Millis’s book, written in the 1930s, is a black comedy about the Spanish-American War, America’s first foray into global imperialism, which it turns out was much like the ones we still launch today. There’s the warmongering press, the strident self-righteousness, the larger-than-life characters, the swift military victories that transform into grinding occupations. Millis’s book is a darkly humorous look at what America was capable of at its peak, as well as the absurdities and tragedies this sheer power could create.
8. Stalin’s War, by Sean McMeekin
There are limitless books on World War II, many of them great (check out Revolver’s list of U.S. military memoirs for some excellent choices). But McMeekin’s book, the newest on this list, is one of the most thought-provoking. Why did World War 2 end with the U.S. locked in a superpower rivalry with the USSR? In large part, McMeekin demonstrates, because FDR and Soviet sympathizers within his government practically gave away the country to Joseph Stalin. Everything from butter to trucks to previously-secret military technology poured endlessly into Vladivostok and Murmansk, giving the Soviet Union enough strength to not only beat Hitler, but also to support a Communist empire spanning half the globe. In return, the U.S. didn’t just receive nothing: McMeekin makes a fascinating argument that Stalin’s machinations helped drive the U.S. and Japan towards an avoidable war. Give this book a look and you’ll never think about World War 2 the same way again.
So much of what defines America today was created, not by victory in the World War 2, but the Cold War that followed. So why did the Cold War unfold as it did, with America acting as a clumsy hegemon and world cop? These two books go a long way toward explaining how.
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“Odd Man Out” is by a mainstream academic, yet reads like a wild conspiracy theory, proposing that the Korean War, far from being a surprise, was a carefully orchestrated play by President Truman, who used the war to secure a large-scale U.S. rearmament coupled with a hardline anti-Communist foreign policy.
“Background to Betrayal”, meanwhile, looks at Vietnam. The Vietnam War is one of the greatest calamities in American history, but how did it become such a disaster? And why, ten years after the withdrawal of France, was America so enmeshed in Vietnam that it was ready to throw away 50,000 lives for a doomed regime?
The full story is depressingly familiar: An arrogant left-wing State Department, foreign politicians who were U.S. puppets, the casual destruction of foreign peoples and institutions, and a gross overconfidence in America’s power to control events ten thousand miles away. The book, by spy-turned-conservative polemicist Hilaire du Berrier, came out in 1965, just as America’s military commitment to Vietnam was ramping up, but anybody who read his book was completely unsurprised that this massive war failed to achieve its goals and only delayed a total Communist takeover. Superficially, this is a story about Vietnam. But on a deeper level, it is the story of a State Department elite whose values, priorities, and failures are all depressingly familiar.
10. Days of Rage, by Bryan Burrough
America’s globalist elites have seized on the January 6 Capitol incursion to claim that America faces a “violent insurrection.” It’s a lie, told to justify giving them even more power.
But America has faced real insurrectionary movements before, and surprisingly recently.
The narcissistic Baby Boomers who still control the commanding heights of American media and pop culture have sold a sanitized portrait of the 1960s. To most Americans, it was an era of peaceful protest for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. But in reality, far more was going on. Rioters gutted America’s greatest cities and triggered massive migration to the suburbs as those with means fled crime, chaos, and urban decay.
In the late 60s and early 70s, all kinds of radical left-wing groups waged war against their own government: The Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the United Freedom Front, the FALN, the list goes on. Communists, black nationalists, and other extremists launched a wave of bombings, bank robberies, and murders. When caught, they enjoyed the support of skilled legal teams. Instead of spending the rest of their lives in prison, many escaped justice entirely. The most famous member of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers, became a college professor, mentor, and (some say) ghostwriter to future president Barack Obama.
“Days of Rage” captures the reality of America’s most turbulent period between the Great Depression and today.