The list of excellent volumes on U.S. history is endless, but here are five that speak to classical visions of order and/or the efficacy of the humane tradition.
A Better Guide Than Reason, by M.E. Bradford
I count this volume as an essential starting-place. Dr. Bradford traces the Founders’ understanding of the good society and prudent government through the example of the Roman Republic. In establishing a republic of republics they sought to forge a government that, properly maintained, would avoid the pitfalls of the Roman Empire. His aim is to show that the principles of the Declaration of Independence embody not a humanist project but a protection of constitutional equality before the law. Those principles, far from revolutionary, are grounded in the wisdom of the great tradition.
History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, by Henry Adams
Who better to write one of the great volumes on American history than the grandson of John Adams? Journalist, editor, and professor at Harvard, Adams was imminently qualified to draw upon the art and culture of early 19th century American and European culture as reflections of an emerging liberal order.This work is noted for its wit and insight into the foreign intrigues that many early American statesmen sought to avoid. Adams shows how at several turns Jefferson abandoned his own principles; that ideological and political purity are all but impossible in the office of the presidency.
John Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in American Politics, by Russell Kirk
Fast-forward to the years after Jefferson, and we find one of the few voices of classical principles still standing. And stand Randolph did, as a fiery and eccentric orator on the floor of Congress, cracking his bullwhip as he quoted Cicero. Harboring a sense of Jefferson’s betrayal of republican principles, Randolph led a small group of legislators called “tertium quids” who sought to restore the original ideas of an agrarian republic. This work — originally presented as Kirk’s M.A. thesis at Duke — traces the tradition of ordered liberty from Edmund Burke to Randolph, with the latter’s fearless and, at times, Cassandran stress on place, limits, and economy of government.
James Madison and the Making of America, by Kevin Gutzman
A rising star of American history scholarship, Dr. Gutzman focuses here on one of the most perplexing figures of the nation’s early years. In some ways the antithesis of Randolph while regarded as the father of the Constitution, Madison found himself thrust into positions contrary to his own original principles. This volume devotes much space to Madison’s role in the separation of church and state in Virginia. Upon finishing this work the reader will be able to trace the lineage of contemporary challenges to American society and state directly to Madison’s time.
Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, by Eugene Genovese
What of those who were denied the equality under the law? Roll, Jordan, Roll is the definitive study of slavery’s impact on both African American and white populations in the antebellum U.S. Despite an intimidating 864 pages, Genovese’s masterful and fluid style makes for a page-turner. An epic account of heroism and tragedy, the author displays a rarified even-handedness in dealing with his subjects. Originally a Marxist and atheistic scholar, Genovese became — in part through his studies of the American South — a Christian and advocate for authentic society.