4 great political books you've never heard of

The 2012 presidential campaign sure has been a humdinger. Some folks might even think it's the most, um, humdinger-iest campaign ever. If only. American campaigns have always been full of high drama, low blows, and the best free entertainment this side of Hollywood gossip. I contacted several well-known historians and asked them to name their favorite not-well-known-but-still-awesome book about American politics or a particular campaign. Their answers are below. Each book offers modern readers a chance to discover how much – and how little – things have changed.

1.'Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800,' by John Ferling

Modern readers will find much here that sounds familiar, from absurd lies spread by both sides (Federalists charged that if elected, Jefferson would seize and burn Bibles) to political chicanery (Alexander Hamilton attempted to manipulate the electoral outcome so that a vice presidential candidate would come out ahead). Had word arrived more quickly that the increasingly unpopular war with France had ended, Adams might well have won. The story is especially sad since the two men were old friends and revolutionary comrades who worked together on the Declaration of Independence. The contest was so bitter that Adams left Washington rather than watch Jefferson be sworn in. They would not speak again for more than a decade. Ferling has an elegant and clear prose style, so this is one academic book that all readers will enjoy.

– Douglas R. Egerton, author of "Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War."

(You can read my review of Egerton's book here and my interview with Egerton here.)

'Washington in Lincoln's Time,' by Noah Brooks

This memoir by a pre-eminent journalist is written with such style, liveliness, and insight  – in addition to enviable access – that the reader feels like an eavesdropper in the private quarters of the White House, vicariously present in the streets of wartime Washington. This riveting book has a marvelous anecdote about Lincoln’s unpretentiousness. One morning Brooks greeted the president, who stood by the front gate looking anxiously down the street. “Good morning,” said Lincoln. “I am looking for a newsboy. When you get to that corner I wish you would start one up this way.”

– Anthony Pitch, "'They Have Killed Papa Dead!': The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance."

(Read my review of Pitch's book here.)

'Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865-1928,' by Michael McGerr

This terrific book digs deep into the newspapers and political papers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to explain a fundamental change in our political style: the demise of a raucous, highly participatory, partisan, and sometimes corrupt political culture and the rise of a new system that valued independent thinking, policy issues, and objectivity. Although there's a hint of nostalgia in McGerr's lament of passing of the old politics, and the lower levels of voter turnout and citizen engagement that followed, it also recognizes the benefits of the new style. It is not a jeremiad about contemporary political life but a penetrating historical analysis of how our political culture came to be.

David Greenberg, author of "Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image."

'Out of the Jaws of Victory,' by Jules Abels

This is an early study of the 1948 Truman-Dewey campaign. It's not an exhaustive examination, but Abels knew where all the bodies were buried. He had the sources and a real sense of perspective. He played it straight and fair and delivered a smoothly written narrative. Still an excellent read.

– David Pietrusza, author of "1920: The Year of the Six Presidents."