I backed into the American Revolution in college when I took a course from Garry Wills about Thomas Jefferson. Wills found Jefferson fascinating and quirky, but he loved George Washington, whom he used as a stick to beat Jefferson (gently). That was the hook that led me into history.
1 George Washington: A Biography , by Washington Irving, was one of the first (published 1855-59) and is still one of the best. Irving felt a personal tie: When Washington was president, living in New York City, Irving’s nurse presented the infant future-writer to him for a blessing. Irving’s biography was the last work of his life, finished in the teeth of illness and depression. Charles Neider edited a one-volume abridgment (Doubleday, 1976; Da Capo, 1994). Irving’s prose is old-fashioned, but he was a great storyteller; his account of the Battle of Long Island in 1776, Washington’s first and most crushing defeat, and especially the pages on the last stand of William Smallwood’s Marylanders, is the best I know. The Marylanders were nicknamed “macaronis” for their flashy uniforms. Protecting the retreat of their comrades across Gowanus Creek (now the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn), they were surrounded by superior enemy forces, which they attacked repeatedly. Washington, watching it all from Brooklyn Heights, exclaimed “Good God! what brave fellows I must this day lose!”
2 My favorite modern history of the war is Angel in the Whirlwind , by Benson Bobrick (Simon & Schuster, 1997; paperback, 2011). Bobrick tells the whole story cleanly and compactly. The book is dedicated “to all my forebears, patriot and loyalist, who fought and died on both sides.” He shows unusual sympathy for the losers, while telling a story of American triumph.
3 John and Abigail Adams corresponded throughout the war because John was so often away from home, in Congress or serving abroad as a diplomat. (A new edition of their letters is My Dearest Friend , edited by Margaret Hogan and C. James Taylor, Harvard Univ., 2010, paperback.) Their earliest letters, from the First Continental Congress in 1774 through the Declaration of Independence, make a unique record. Both Adamses were great correspondents, observant, tart and passionate. John’s prickliness and pomposity show through, subsumed by his intelligence and patriotism, while Abigail writes with the ardor of an American caught up in the cause and the anxiety of a wife and mother trying to hold it together on the home front. Her account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which she could hear from the family house in Braintree, is a grim bulletin. “My bursting heart must find vent at my pen. . . . Almighty God, cover the heads of our countrymen, and be a shield to our dear friends. How [many have] fallen we know not — the constant roar of the cannon is so [distressing] that we cannot eat, drink or sleep.”
Every generation must be ready to be the greatest when called upon. They were our first.
is host of Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton, which aired on PBS this spring, and author of “James Madison,” to be published in October.