How to Learn American History

Historian H.W. Brands wished to write an extensive multi-volume history of the United States.  However, publishers bulked that it would not sell, so Brands came up with a plan to do what he wanted while satisfying the publisher’s preference for biographies.  His solution was a sequence of biographies that would cover the history of America.

Recently, I finished listening to the chronologically first in the series The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.  Overall, I judge Brands’ to be a good biography of Franklin; although, I preferred Carl Van Doren’s offering, despite its errors in attribution of works that Franklin published but did not write.  To set context Brands’ book did include a wide range of people and events not explicitly Franklin.  In doing so, I found that he gave a good overview of these critical externalities, but these were very high level brief summaries.  However, such sign posts can be useful to identify interesting opportunities for learning more about a topic.

I have Brands’ chronologically next volume Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times  and plan to read it as a supplement to Remini’s definitive three volumes.

My own choice in readings to learn more American history is different and more voluminous.  I am reading the definitive biographies of our presidents in order; currently reading Bemis’ volumes on John Quincy Adams.  By definitive, I mean that I read all six volumes by Dumas Malone  instead of a “popular” Jefferson biography by Joseph Ellis.  I do supplement these with books on interesting subjects related to a president’s history—for example: biographies of related individuals such as Alexander Hamilton  or Tecumseh; or books on a event such as the Panic of 1819.

Following my method, I have found the following general points:

  1. reading conflicting view points from principles contesting an event provides a richer understanding and offers wisdom for one’s own personal conduct in life;
  2. understanding past events in detail provides insights into current events and better policy options;
  3. our knowledge of past events is not always complete and expert historians will honestly disagree about the interpretation of the same incomplete facts;
  4. by presenting history in the context of an individual’s life, biographies communicate not only exalted events, but also the common in a context of a changing environment while providing perspective on what was ultimately important; and
  5. having a broad and deep understanding of history allows one to identify dishonest, or simply erroneous, appeals to history in political disagreements.

If you care about learning more history, how to you approach it?

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3 Responses to How to Learn American History

  1. Chuck says:

    I like reading business history, which does often reference concurrent political events. I’m reading a lot of books about our merchant marine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it gives you a new perspective on things like the Napoleonic Wars, the British actions that led to the War of 1812, and a Jefferson imposed embargo’s effects on American shipping (it was referred to as Jefferson’s “tyrannical embargo” by New England shipping merchants). But mostly, I just enjoy reading about the heroic businessmen that we never hear about in today’s history classes, like Elias Haskett Derby, of Salem, Massachussetts. And about Salem’s glorious golden age of merchant shipping – rather than its witch trials, which is all you are likely to hear about in a classroom.


  2. Pingback: Top 10 Books for Selfish Citizens, 2nd Quarter 2013 | Selfish Citizenship

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