Chris' Recommended Reading
There's a lot out there when it comes to understanding the founding of our country. When you're looking at all the books out there about the founding everything really boils down to what you’re trying to understand. Founding Brothers is the most accessible book that has a major historical thesis. 1776 gives a good feel for the time. I personally like McCullough’s writing style so I also recommend his biography of John Adams (the mini-series with Paul Giammati is wonderful as well.) An alternate biography on John Adams would be The Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis. It’s important to get different views on a topic so if you read Founding Brothers and 1776 it might be best to read a different John Adams biography in order to get a different authors take on the time and the people involved.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is the most recent book on the list and Jon Meacham is a good writer and scholar. Jefferson: The Art of Power is not as good as Meacham’s wonderful American Lion. That being said it is a surprisingly accessible biography on Jefferson and why he was such a unique leader. One could also read Ellis’s American Sphynx for another view on Jefferson. Jefferson is a very tough man to understand however which is why I recommend Madison and Jefferson. Madison and Jefferson puts both characters in a good context, shows them in a personal light and tries to compare/contrast the two men with one another. This works very well for fleshing out both men who were integral to the founding of our country.
I’ve yet to read a definitive bio of Washington or Franklin. Those men were goliaths. Chernow’s Washington comes closest but is close to 1,000 pages. Brevity, for what it’s worth, is not that man’s strong suit. Hamilton clocks in at around 800 pages. Franklin’s autobiography is actually a very good and surprisingly accessible read. I’m not a big Issacson fan so I don’t recommend his bio of Franklin. Understand also that there are different “schools” of history. Race and Gender history are big ideas in history right now. The Hemingses of Monticello is a very well-researched book but I think its conclusions have been too widely accepted without fair scrutiny because of the historical period in which it was written. I’m not saying that we should dismiss those conclusions outright, but historians must be aware of biases; it’s the big thing that you learn in historical methods classes that professional historians are required to take but far too few professional historians will admit their own biases which leads to its own set of unique problems. Beware anyone who talks as if they are unbiased and above scrutiny. These are precisely the people who should be criticized the most.
Also, keep in mind that there were three major events in the founding of our country. There was the Revolution, the Confederation Troubles, and the Constitutional Solution. Many know the Revolution, some understand the Constitution and next to no one understands the Confederation troubles largely because they aren’t directly pertinent to the historical discussion that we have today which revolves around the Constitution. It’s important to understand that the Constitution would have been impossible without the weak Confederation government and the strong monetary principles that were fought for by men like Hamilton in the early days of the Constitution. Thus, you must understand what you’re seeking to understand before you actively pursue solutions to the questions that you have.