History Books » American History

The Best Books on the American Revolution

recommended by T.H. Breen

The American Revolution began as a war for independence but, by its end, the war had transformed the thirteen colonies into a republic. Historian T.H. Breen recommends the best books which relay the revolutionary impact of the American War of Independence.

Interview by Eve Gerber

The American Revolution is known as the American War of Independence in the homeland of Five Books, the United Kingdom. As we discuss your five books, we’ll explore whether the events of 1776 were merely a war for independence or more revolutionary. But, to begin, can you please brief us on the bare bones of the American Revolution. We’ll get to the whys, but before we do, please tell us about the when and the where.

The standard narrative usually starts with the coronation of King George III in 1760. Everyone in America welcomes the ascension of a young reforming king, but that quickly turned sour. Parliament turned to the Americans for revenue to pay military costs. This led to the first Stamp Act crisis in 1765, in which printed goods were going to be taxed, and then the Townsend Acts in 1767, in which tea and other imported goods were to be taxed. In each case, colonists protested, and Parliament backed down. Finally, in 1773, in an effort to save the East India Company, the major producer of tea in Britain who had a monopoly on tea in America, Parliament held firm. This is what I call ‘the pressure cooker’ story: gradually Americans become more and more discontented. That’s the old story.

Newer scholarship suggests that those kinds of issues were easily handled by British authorities, as they had been when similar issues cropped up in Scotland and Ireland. A few ‘founding fathers,’ like Adams, were writing pamphlets, but here was no expectation that the events of the 1760s would lead to a rebellion. It wasn’t the Boston Tea Party, where some colonists in Boston dumped East India tea in Boston Harbor, that led to a break. It was rather Parliament’s punishment of the Americans and armed occupation of Boston in 1774 that electrified ordinary men and women outside of New England. Colonists who considered themselves loyal subjects to the King felt they were treated like criminals. Political protests spread, gradually leading to armed battles in Lexington and Concord during April of 1775 and then in June, at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Then the fight was really on.

Tell us about the war itself.

The original aim of the fight was independence. The Declaration of Independence was issued in July of 1776. Revolutionary goals developed during the course of the revolution.

The war began, militarily, in 1775 with the Battle of Bunker Hill and lasted until 1783. We tend to focus on the early years, but the suffering and sacrifice of the American people in the later years of the war were just as great as at the beginning. Relative to the population of America, which was around two and a half million people at the time, more people died in the Revolution than in any war other than the Civil War. Many of these fatalities occurred in British prison camps and on British prison vessels in American harbors, which were an atrocity.

“Revolutionary goals developed during the course of the revolution”

The Continental Army was divided into regiments by state. The Pennsylvania Line and the Maryland Line, as they were called, became quite competent. Underneath the regiments were local militia. They weren’t highly trained for battle; they served more effectively as ideological police. The British had a large number of soldiers and also hired perhaps 20,000 people from the Hanover and Brunswick areas of Germany. At the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, one of the Americans’ first grade victories, about a third of the soldiers who surrendered were Germans. The French came in on the American side after 1778 and were essential to America’s victory, particularly at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, which ended the fighting, but not the war. To give you an idea of how essential the French alliance was for us gaining our independence, there were more French troops in Yorktown than there were Americans.

What role did Indigenous Americans play in this war?

Indigenous peoples played a key role, especially in the Pennsylvania area, where they sided with the Americans. The Iroquois, in the upper New York area, fought well in support of the British side. American independence was a setback for Native American peoples. After independence, the frontier was flooded by land-hungry families moving to Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky. Once that flood began, Native Americans had an extremely hard time holding their own ground. The collapse of the frontier wasn’t a goal of the war, but it was a result of the war.

The American Revolution once occupied a central position in American history lessons. Kids were taught that the heroic words of the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal—encapsulated the American creed. Increasingly, schools insist that this is a myth. The Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project argues that preserving slavery was an important impetus of the American Revolution. In the words of Ibram Kendi, the author of the award-winning Stamped from the Beginning, which was my son’s only history book in eighth grade, “We have rejected the master narrative that has in fact been the master’s narrative.”

I understand the need to pay greater attention to Americans who were left out of the traditional story. Of the two and a half million people in the colonies at the time of the American Revolution, 20 per cent were black and enslaved. So I understand people who say the Revolution should have paid more attention to their suffering. As many voices as possible should be included in understanding our origin.

Turning to your recommendations, let’s begin with The Stamp Act Crisis first published by Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan and his collaborator Helen Morgan in 1953.

Edmund Morgan was a great stylist. He knew how to write accessible prose. I love the architecture of this book. He interlaces a chapter about politics, about what’s happening in Parliament and what the King is up to, with chapters about how ordinary Americans’ lives were transformed because of the decisions you read about in the previous chapter. This back and forth between high politics and local response is creative genius. The Stamp Act Crisis is a model for what great historical writing can be.

In his preface to the third edition of The Stamp Act Crisis, Morgan writes that he wanted to republish the book to “reaffirm the significance of ideas in society, particularly political and constitutional ideas.”

When Morgan rose to prominence in the profession during the 1950s, World War II had just ended. There was a sense that America’s ideology of freedom and liberty propelled us to victory over an alien and evil ideology; many historians projected these feelings against communism. The intellectual environment of the time was oriented around the clash of ideological systems. There was a sense among Cold War historians that the American values of freedom and liberty were not only superior but had also been proved superior in competition with these other systems. That was the world Morgan came from.

“In the ideas and ideals that animate politics and find their way into laws and constitutions, we discover a people’s understanding of themselves, including the crucial ideas that enable them to think of themselves as a people,” according to Morgan. How did the ideas generated by the Stamp Act crisis help create what has been called the American creed?

What I think Morgan meant was that many colonists felt England had been corrupted and that there was a desire for a more virtuous politics. Notions of freedom, liberty and rights became absolutely paramount in the story that historians of Morgan’s generation told.

But, let’s be honest, when we talk about American ideas, we have to say: Whose ideas? We’re talking about what white, male Americans thought.

Next, a brilliant book about how a diverse set of distanced colonies developed the trust to act collectively and sustain a long rebellion against a mighty empire. Please tell me about your own Marketplace of Revolution.

Revolutions come about because of the people whose names are not recorded in history books. If you don’t have the people on the street behind you, you just have ideas. My research showed that the common denominator between little towns scattered throughout America was consumer habits.

British manufacturing absolutely dominated the American market. Every consumer good in a colonial house was British-made. It slowly dawned on Americans that they could weaponize consumption. If you privately tell me that you are revolutionary, I might believe you but be skeptical that you are going to act on your beliefs. But if you stop buying imported cloth and put down your tea, I know you’re committed.

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Protests and boycotts grew more successful as Americans communicated through newspapers. Newspapers were the Facebook of revolutionary times; they were the way Americans organized and confirmed that neighboring towns were joining in. People in Georgia reading about the actions of people in Massachusetts learned that strangers were sharing in their protest; that gave the Revolution power over time. The Marketplace Revolution is about how the American people, through consumer good boycotts, began to resist British oppression.

How much of an innovation was this non-importation activity? You call it “a reinvention of political culture.”

It was a total innovation. I was unable to find any earlier sustained efforts to weaponize consumption. When people talk about the political inventiveness of the Americans, they point to the U.S. Constitution and ignore the fact that the Americans were essentially the first to successfully boycott. I’ve heard from historians in Asia and other places that there is, in fact, no precedent. Later, this technique was imported by Gandhi, for instance, to gain a political voice for people who lacked a vote in the direction of their country.

Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is on a lot of syllabi. Why?

The book first appeared as the introduction to a proposed four-volume series of what Professor Bailyn thought were key documents in understanding the American political mind. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution argues that ideas were central to the American Revolution. Bailyn described the Americans, on the eve of the Revolution, as believing that a conspiracy had taken over British politics, causing power to fall into the hands of a few corrupt people and that caused revolutionaries resolved to stand up for a purer form of politics.

“American independence was a setback for Native American people”

Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was the most popular book that focused on the intellectual life of the Revolution; it won many prizes. It probably remains a key text for students, especially graduate students, in universities today. Bailyn and Morgan were the giants of the field in the fifties and sixties and seventies.

Bailyn and this book challenged those who asserted that the American Revolution was primarily a product of class warfare. Can you please explain progressive historians’ interpretation of the Revolution, encapsulated most enduringly by historians Charles and Mary Beard?

Before World War Two, perhaps looking at the Russian Revolution, some historians rummaged through the American Revolution looking for evidence that landed interests and class competition lay behind the ideas espoused by the founders. Morgan and Bailyn showed the shortcomings of looking at events through such a narrow lens. Bailyn looked at the evidence and found no sign in the pamphlets from the period of class competition within the white American population, so he returned attention to the importance of ideas in igniting the Revolution.

The great Gordon Wood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Radicalism of the American Revolution is next on our reading list.

Gordon Wood was a student of Professor Bailyn’s at Harvard. He’s a terrific writer. In this book he maps out the movement from a pre-revolutionary society focused on monarchy, hierarchy and privilege to a revolutionary society. He explains how the Americans gradually found themselves championing republicanism. Republicanism can mean a secular government, where there is no king, or republicanism can mean a system in which all people have a say. It’s a masterly book about how Americans moved from a monarchical society to a republican society, that documents each stage of this change clearly and carefully.

I want to remind your readers that when most of the Americans in Gordon Wood’s book were talking about equality, they were talking about equality for white men. That’s also what Thomas Jefferson meant when he talked about equality in the Declaration of Independence. There was never any sense that African Americans or Indians would be involved.

Gordon Wood makes a case that the American Revolution set in motion changes that “made the interests and prosperity of ordinary people—their pursuits of happiness—the goal of society and government.” And he claims that it was “the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history.” In what ways did the Revolution transform American society according to Wood and according to you?

I have different views, but I think Gordon would say that during the war and in the period leading up to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, leading Americans believed in a republican society in which leaders would be virtuous, not engaged in grubby money-making. He describes the men we call the founding fathers as almost philosophic figures. Nevertheless, he explains, it wasn’t until after the 1790s and into the 19th century that Americans decided that equality really meant something. In the early republic, some Americans decided that everybody should have a voice and that even the little guy on the street should be heard by his government. This led to what he calls the breakdown of classical republican society into the more liberal and open world of the 19th century. So, as Wood has it, we moved from monarchical to republican to liberal. Wood has this tri-part way of looking at politics.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about one of the most revelatory and fun reads about the Revolution, The Will of the People.

In The Will of the People, I had several goals. One was illuminating the lives of often overlooked people of the revolutionary period. The Will of the People is complementary to the work of intellectual historians, like Bailyn and Woods. Ordinary men and women in towns and villages across what became the United States were absolutely essential to launching and sustaining the Revolution. The ideas articulated by ordinary people launched the Revolution and the sacrifices ordinary people made sustained the American Revolution, even when things were going very badly on the battlefield. Sons, fathers and husbands laid down their lives for the Revolution. Families sacrificed their consumer comforts and economic welfare for the cause.

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I tell the stories of the people that don’t make it into the accounts of the intellectual historians and who are not the subjects of any biographies. Understanding their lives is just as vital to understanding the Revolution. I was able to read virtually all of the surviving newspapers from the Revolution. I surveyed all the published materials of the era, including sermons, which gave ordinary people religious justifications for protest. After all, the American Revolution was not just an ideological conflict. Revolutionaries had to withstand misery and fear and bloody conflict. The basics of war—misery and fear—get left out of the story. I tried to restore the emotional register of the Revolution so that readers get a fuller sense of what it meant to fight for independence.

Did the Revolution forge a national identity?

The initial goal of the Revolution was simply to make Parliament back down. When Parliament wasn’t eager to compromise, the goal became to gain independence. But to sustain the war effort and the vacuum left as British authorities retreated, citizens’ committees of safety and committees of observation were created, some elected, some appointed. These citizens’ committees not only ran the revolution but governed the colonies and got loyalists on board. So, these committees, like the committees of safety during the French Revolution, policed the Revolution at key moments. It’s estimated that as many as 20,000 adult white males suddenly found themselves in positions of authority. They had never been elected before. They might’ve been seen as too poor or too uneducated for government affairs before. Huge numbers of new people became involved in government. During the Revolution, the colonies became a republican country. They had not set out to become a government of the people, but in the course of the war, that’s what occurred. By the end of the American Revolution, in 1783, to a degree that no founding father planned and that no one anticipated, the United States became a nation run by the people.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

T.H. Breen

T.H. Breen

T.H. Breen is William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University.

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T.H. Breen

T.H. Breen

T.H. Breen is William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University.