10 Books About U.S. History That May Change Your Opinions Of The Founding Fathers
Since 1776, July 4th has been devoted to celebrating the U.S. and its history, which includes the veneration of the Founding Fathers — seven white men who framed and founded the nation. Not everyone in the U.S. sees July 4 as a reason to celebrate, which is why I've picked out 10 books about America that may change your opinions of the Founding Fathers, so that you can shake up your reading list this Independence Day.
Who should and should not be considered among the Founding Fathers is a matter of some debate, but many historians generally agree that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington were instrumental in generating support for the American Revolution and creating the early U.S. What you're sure to notice about these seven people is that they were well-educated, mostly rich, and all white and male — not exactly the most diverse or unbiased group of folks to ever go into business together, right? As a result, the U.S., as an institution, prevented people who were not wealthy, white men from having basic rights for centuries, and it continues to do so today.
Of course, if you went to school in the U.S., you probably haven't heard much about this at all. Most curricula teach that the Founding Fathers were unquestionably good, wizened men who created the greatest country in the world, but the reality is that the seven figures listed above were largely slave-owners and supporters of slavery who were, on average, about 37 years old on July 4, 1776, and who created a nation that has just as many problems as any other. The Declaration of Independence might say that "all men are created equal," but the laws the Founders enacted, and the structures they built, belied that bold assertion to King George III.
Here are 10 books that may change the way you think about the Founding Fathers of the U.S.
'Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge' by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
This National Book Award finalist tells the story of Ona Judge, a woman enslaved in George Washington's household, who escaped the new president's ownership by seizing upon a Pennsylvania state law that required enslaved persons to be freed after spending six months in the state. In spite of the fact that the law was on Judge's side, Washington and his wife spent years trying to capture the 22-year-old who had defied them for freedom.
'Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic' by John M. Murrin
This essay collection explores the history of American identity and conflicts, analyzing the relationship between the Founders' visions of their new country and the reality of what they created, and questioning how the Revolutionary War shaped the first century of American development.
'An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States' by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
In this American Book Award winner, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examines U.S. history from the perspectives of the indigenous populations, whom centuries of genocidal colonization — supported and strengthened by presidential administrations — reduced in number from 15 million to 3 million.
'The Price of Greatness: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of American Oligarchy' by Jay Cost
Famous frenemies and Federalists Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were instrumental in shaping the American treasury and legal system. In The Price of Greatness, Jay Cost explores how and when these two Founders got comfortable with the idea of capitol corruption as a trade-off for American development.
'The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family' by Annette Gordon-Reed
For decades, Thomas Jefferson raped his late wife's half-sister, an enslaved teenager named Sally Hemings, who went on to give birth to six of his children. Often referenced as a footnote in works on Jefferson, Hemings' story, and those of her children, are revealed in Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello.
'The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American' by Andrew L. Seidel
If you've ever been told that the Founders were pious Christians, or were devoted to Judeo-Christian beliefs, this is the book you need to read. In The Founding Myth, constitutional attorney Andrew L. Seidel debunks the myth of America's Christian identity, and explains why arguing for the establishment — or existence — of a state religion in this country goes against its founding values.
'The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution' by Terri Diane Halperin
Americans hold their Freedom of Speech near and dear, but did you know that one of the Founding Fathers tried to criminalize dissent in the 18th century? Terri Diane Halperin explores John Adams' tenuous relationship with the First Amendment in The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
'The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin' by Gordon S. Wood
From Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gordon S. Wood comes this chronicle of Benjamin Franklin's life, which separates the real Franklin from Americans' view of him as a Founding Father. The tale of how Benjamin Franklin came to be so revered after his death is a story worth exploring for yourself.
'The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers' by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
A few years before the American Colonies declared their independence from England, an enslaved woman named Phillis Wheatley wrote poems that won her freedom. Many of the Founders were pleased to accept Wheatley's accomplishments as genuine, but one, Thomas Jefferson, responded by moving the goalposts to say that the young poet's work was of subpar quality.
'The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution' by Robert G. Parkinson
Winning colonists' hearts for the Revolution wasn't easy in the late 18th century, so the patriots capitalized on racist fears of Native American raids and slave uprisings to unite white settlers in the fight for their own freedom from England. Read about how white supremacy became linked with patriotism in The Common Cause.