Enrich your Independence Day: Top 5 revolutionary reads of 2021

The Fourth of July is a time for national celebration – and reflection. Our reviewer’s top five new histories of the American Revolution bring timely perspective to Independence Day.

John Walker/The Metro West Daily News/AP/FIle
Captain Steve Crosby of the Acton Minutemen leads his group across the North Bridge, during the re-enactment of the North Bridge fight marking the 241st anniversary of the start of the American Revolutionary War, April 18, 2016, in Concord, Massachusetts.
Bloomsbury Publishing Inc
"Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781" by John Ferling, 736 pp.
Penguin Books
"You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington" by Alexis Coe, 304 pp.

The United States of America celebrates its 245th birthday on Sunday, and the choices of books on the history of the American Revolution are manifold. So in the Spirit of 1776, and acknowledging both the distance the U.S. has traveled and the distance it still has to go to become “a more perfect union,” we offer the five best books, so far this year, about the nation’s origins.

Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians’ First Battles in the Revolution

By Mark R. Anderson

The growing armed conflict between British forces and American revolutionaries unfolded in a land that had already been occupied by Native Americans for millennia. The many tribes and nations of the colonies were faced with the most brutal of all choices between the lesser of two evils, and Mark R. Anderson’s new book “Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians’ First Battles in the Revolution” sharply captures some of the complexities of the conflict as represented in a brutal series of encounters in 1776 west of Montreal.

Bloomsbury Publishing Inc
"Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781" by John Ferling, 736 pp.

Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781

By John Ferling

The war sprawled out from its 1776 beginnings, and as respected Revolution historian John Ferling stresses in his big new book “Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781,” one of the most crucial theaters of the war is also one of the least-studied: the efforts of the British to take or turn the southern colonies of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Readers unfamiliar with this period of the Revolution will find it gripping reading to learn how close some of those efforts came to success, despite the surrender of British Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown. Ferling’s book is full of deep research and dramatic character portraits, a crowning achievement from one of the best historians of the period.

Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders

By Dennis C. Rasmussen

Even though Ferling’s book naturally ends in victory for the revolutionary forces, all the complex issues remained – indeed, they multiplied as the new nation tried to get started. This led to a surprising amount of doubt on the part of America’s Founding Fathers about the prospects of the whole enterprise, and those doubts are the subject of Dennis C. Rasmussen’s fascinating new book “Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders.” In these pages, Rasmussen shows us some very different sides to the icons of the country’s birth – a welcome corrective to the hero-worship these figures usually evoke. These Founders worried about the nature of popular government, the challenges of equitable representation, and the practicalities of actual military and financial survival. 

Penguin Books
"You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington" by Alexis Coe, 304 pp.

You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

By Alexis Coe

None of those doubting figures evokes more hero-worship (and none was gloomier about the prospects of the new United States of America) than George Washington. In John Ferling’s book, the general is praised for winning the war and leading the nation as its first president. This weight of reverence is counterbalanced in Alexis Coe’s new book “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.” Coe very pointedly shrugs off the weight of hagiography, attempting instead to assess the man himself and the many contradictions in his nature, foremost that he was the first leader of a country whose founding document declares all men equal, and yet he was also a life-long owner of enslaved people. The result is one of the most argument-starting biographical looks at Washington in 30 years, since Marvin Kitman’s “The Making of the President 1789.”

The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840

By Akhil Reed Amar

Running through all these books is a kind of living current, the ongoing debate over the nature and potential of the American experiment. Sometimes that debate was fought with taxes and embargoes, sometimes with warships and cannon. But for most of America’s history, the main battlefield of these issues has been the law courts and contesting readings of the documents that constitute the DNA of the nation. Legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar’s brilliant new book “The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840” rounds out our list by chronicling the formative decades of the debates that have defined the country: the legitimacy of Westward expansion, the question of Native American sovereignty, and perhaps most of all, the wrestling with slavery as the country grew. Amar illuminates these questions with precision and compassion. 

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