7 Books Every American Needs To Read To Understand The United States's Complicated History

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Americans, it seems, are notoriously uneducated about our own history — and it’s been well-documented. These kinds of headlines have been popping up for years: Americans Know Little About Civic Affairs, by the Smithsonian.com; Alarming Number of U.S. Citizens Don't Know Basic Facts About Their Own Country, from the Daily Mail; a cover story from the American Bar Association Journal titled Flunking Civics: Why America's Kids Know So Little; and more recently The Atlantic’s piece about how the lack of civics education shaped the 2016 election; and CNN’s recent report that Americans know practically nothing about our own Constitution. It’s a phenomenon that’s… well, a tad embarrassing to say the least. But now Americans’ general lack of history and civics education is being blamed, in part, for the chaos surrounding the 2016 presidential election and subsequent fallout. So, maybe that seminar you skipped in college was more important than you realized.  

It’s all well and good to talk about changing the status quo here in the United States. But if we’re going to create real, sustainable change in this country, first we need a clear understanding of where we’ve come from and how we got here — the good, the bad, the brilliant, the unjust, and the downright ugly. Get started with these seven books to help you understand American history.

'1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus' by Charles C. Mann

The caricature of the First Nations peoples has permeated American society and culture for generations, but in Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, those stereotypes are challenged and largely refuted. Extensively researched and thoughtfully compiled, 1491 tells a story of the pre-Columbian Americas — one that looks at both North and South America and suggests that the indigenous populations were larger, more culturally sophisticated, and more technologically advanced (relatively speaking, still no iPhones) than a lifetimes worth of U.S. History 101 textbooks might suggest.

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'A People's History of the United States' by Howard Zinn

Widely circulated across American universities today — and a title that will likely inspire you cheer or groan, depending on what politically-charged camp you currently hail from — Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States tells a different set of stories than the ones we’re used to hearing: those of an American history from the point of view of Native Americans, African Americans, migrant workers, factory laborers, those living in poverty, and women.

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'1776' by David McCullough

By one of America’s most widely-read historians, David McCullough, 1776 tells a compelling and readable story about the year the United States of America became exactly that. Compiling research taken from both U.S. history and British, 1776 features the stories of those who marched alongside then-General George Washington, the everyday Americans who were pivotal to the country’s success in the Revolutionary War, as well as the history behind the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

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'Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation' by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger

John Hope Franklin is considered one of America's foremost African American historians, and alongside author and historian Loren Schweninger tells an expansive and often devastating story of life in the United States before the Civil War. In Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, Franklin and Schweninger look at both slave life and slave rebellions, challenging the narrative that most slaves surrendered to their fate of slavery and demonstrating that plantations were often filled with racial violence and slave rebellions, and that white slave owners went to great lengths to maintain the practice of slavery.

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'Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea' by Richard Kluger

Manifest destiny might sound like a very exciting, romantic deal, but it’s basically a self-righteous way of saying early American settlers took what wasn’t theirs — and/or what wasn’t always available to take — by whatever means necessary, and the/we descendants from those settlers still continue to benefit from it. Exploring this land-grab in-depth is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Richard Kluger’s Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea, which traces the journey of how the United States of America became the fastest-growing and once-richest nation in the world.

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'The Story of American Freedom' by Eric Foner

The world over, the word “America” is often synonymous with the word “freedom.” Certainly, that “freedom” has looked different over the years: varying in who enjoys it and who doesn’t, what it costs and to whom, the myriad ways it can be taken away. Nonetheless, there’s no denying a certain uniquely-American obsession with the idea of freedom. The Story of American Freedom, by Eric Foner, takes the long-range view of this obsession, exploring the evolution of American freedom over decades — both political freedom and personal, public freedom and private.

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'Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory' by David W. Blight

Perhaps no event in history has left a longer — or uglier — legacy on the American consciousness than that of slavery and the Civil War. In Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, author, history professor, and scholar David W. Blight explores this legacy, beginning with the process of post-war reconciliation. Blight examines the politics of memory and willful forgetting, the roles African Americans played (and were denied) during and after the war, and the denial of systemic racism that still exists in American culture today.

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