Tomorrow is Independence Day here in America. Which means it is time for my annual reminder that we celebrate on the wrong day. Also, I think it has turned into a ridiculous excuse to should ‘MERICA at people and light of fireworks. I might be a former history major who is a little bit bitter about the fact that our current stupidity will someday be in the history books. Either way, we got this wrong. Just saying.
But, today is an even more important day. Because HAMILTON is coming to Disney+!!! Yes, I am insanely excited. And yes, I am also having a virtual Hamilton watch party (with the people I went to go see it with all the way back in 2017). Because social distancing is still important. I’m talking to you America (because the rest of the world seems to have their shit together when it comes to the pandemic).
Anyway, in honor of both of these very important holidays, I’ve decided to share some of my favorite American history books, and what is up next on my TBR.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Obviously, this has to be on the list. We all love Hamilton, so why not read the book that inspired the musical. When I was reading this, two things really stood out to me. First, it is very evident just how much Lin Manuel Miranda took from this book. He even borrowed exact phrases, which made reading this kind of fun.
The second, and probably most important, thing I got from this book was a TON of history about how America was founded. I literally minored in American studies in college and probably learned more from this book than I did from any of those classes. I am genuinely impressed by how much I learned from this book, not just about Hamilton himself, but about how our nation was founded. Like how Hamilton helped set up the electoral college, the point of which was to make sure no idiot was ever elected president. Clearly, that worked out really well 200 years later.
Anyway, I loved this book. I learned a lot about American history. And if the only reason you read it is because of Hamilton, that’s totally cool.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
One of my favorite figures from history is Benjamin Franklin. I love how he was super smart, but also kind of weird. Like one of those quirky geniuses. I literally have a book written by Franklin on my bookshelves with this amazing title: Fart Proudly (I linked the Goodreads page in case you think I’m making that up).
He was an interesting figure in the shaping of America because he was a lot older than most of the founding fathers. He was inventing cool things and sitting back while Hamilton was just an ambitious nineteen-year-old. In the context of the revolution, he played a unique role almost of like a parent keeping everyone else from being extra stupid. But he also spent years trolling people in the media (in case you think that’s something new, Franklin was kind of the OG troll).
Overall, he was just kind of a badass. And definitely a fun figure to learn more about.
Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Probably the most important book on this list. Like I said, I studied American history extensively in college. But a huge part that was missing was racism. I knew it was a thing, and I did learn about slavery and emancipation, but this book takes it to a whole new level. This book taught me more than any college course I took. And the things I learned are extremely important.
I came away from this wanting to keep reading and learn more. I honestly think this is a book everyone should read. If you want to learn more about this book (including how you can listen to the audiobook for free) check out my June Audiobook of the Month post.
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
You are probably all familiar with this one because of the movie – and you should be, the movie is great! But it’s still worth mentioning. Because we should never ever forget that America won the space race because of black women. This story is so inspiring. And it just makes me so damn happy that this story got told. It’s one of those that should never have been left out of the history books in the first place.
So let’s keep reading this book and telling this story so it is never again left out of history. One thing I personally want to learn more about is the people of color and/or women that were left out of out history books. Like Jeremiah Hamilton, Wall Street’s (badass) first black millionaire – whom I read about in Prince of Darkness by Shane White – add that to your TBR, too. Or Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to congress before women were even granted the vote. Let’s read more about them, and the thousands of figures like them who have been unjustly left out of history.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Yes, this is fiction. But it totally deserves to be on this list. Homegoing follows two sisters – one who marries a British general and stays in Ghana, and the other sold into slavery in America. What’s so special is that each chapter alternates between the descendants of each sister, so we get to know each generation. It does a brilliant job of demonstrating the black experience in America over more than a century.
I absolutely loved this book, but I also learned a lot. It definitely fueled my desire to learn more about black history, especially in the US, because that’s where I live. And I am growing more and more aware of just how much was left out of the history books. Hopefully that is something that is fixed, but, until then, it’s up to us to choose to read these books and teach ourselves. I highly recommend this one if you need a place to start, or if you’re just looking for a really great read.
A Nation of Immigrants by John F. Kennedy
I was going to stick to the first five books on the list, but I had to throw this one in. Because the value of immigrants in America has been questioned in recent years. And it makes me mad. Unless you are Native American, you have absolutely no right to be angry at the people coming to this country in search of a better life. We do not own this country. We stole it. And the least we can do is understand that and give everyone a fair shot. JFK really recognized the importance of immigrants, and I really enjoyed reading his take.
What’s Next on My TBR
Grant by Ron Chernow
Alexander Hamilton is the only Chernow book I have read so far. But I have heard absolutely wonderful things about this one. I will be reading it this year for an upcoming secret TBR project, and I am both excited and a little bit nervous – this thing is a beast at over a thousand pages.
However, I know very little about Ulysses S. Grant – other than that his middle name is literally just the letter “S” – so I am looking forward to learning more.
I also want to read Washington: A Life, so just put all of Ron Chernow’s books on my TBR.
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
I’ve talked a lot about wanting to create a more comprehensive picture of American history for myself. It’s something that is really important to me. Because, honestly, my college degree doesn’t feel complete. And I want to feel better about that piece of paper. I also feel passionate about continuing to educate myself, and this book seems like a great way to do that.
It sounds like a more comprehensive view of history. Which means it might be a great starting point to further identify gaps in my own knowledge. Just like Stamped from the Beginning made me realize just how much I didn’t know, hopefully this does that, too. Also, it was recommended by Bill Gates, and we all know I love anything he recommends. (I’m not joking, his book recommendations are incredible.)
I could probably fill an entire room with the history books I still want to read, but I’ll stop here. I’m sure you can tell that I am a giant history nerd. And even though I majored in European history in college, I still found a way to fit in American history with a minor in American studies. And I grew to love it. Hamilton has only fueled that fire. Plus, it’s really nice having the knowledge to back me up when I have to argue against the “Lincoln was a Republican” idiots. (I’ll spare you the lecture, but just Google FDR, the New Deal, and political parties. Basically, the parties switched sides at some point, so Lincoln would 100% be a Democrat today.)
I feel a history rant coming on, so I’ll spare you and go read a book instead. But I hope you enjoyed this post! Have you read any American history books (fiction or nonfiction)? Are there any you’d add to this list? Any on your TBR?