1. Richard White, The Middle Ground (1991). White describes North American politics in an era before the creation of the United States and Canada, when French, British, and American colonists were forced to negotiate with comparatively powerful Indian nations. During this period, neither Europeans nor Indian societies had sufficient power to get what they wanted, so a now-forgotten process of mutual accommodation—what White terms “the middle ground”—developed as all groups along the North American frontier struggled to understand the motives and cultures of the other. Perhaps most significantly, White gives voice and agency to the Algonquian nations who formed this middle ground with the French and British, and explains how this unique space collapsed in the face of American expansion. For students of American history, the book provides a brilliant and sad meditation on how the rise of the United States destroyed this unique middle ground.
2. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). Bailyn’s book, now a classic of early American history, was written in reaction to Progressive historians who dismissed revolutionary ideology as mere propaganda and located the origins of the American Revolution in the economic self-interest of the Founders. Bailyn convincingly demonstrates that ideas were at least as important as material factors, and, in the process, he manages to get inside the heads of the revolutionary leaders and explain how their uniquely American worldview was created. In an age when the ideas of the Founders are frequently used to justify all manner of policy positions, Bailyn’s book helps us to understand how the Founders thought and reminds us that ideas are rarely just cheap talk.
3. W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935). DuBois’s monumental study of post-Civil War America was years ahead of its time, finally gaining prominence decades later after American historians began to take seriously issues of race and class in American development. The book manages to be a tremendous work of scholarship, while also conveying DuBois’s palpable fury at the prevailing view among historians of his era that Reconstruction was a hopeless failure and the goal of social equality an irresponsible pipe-dream.
4. Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (1992). In this classic work of analytical history, Skocpol (whose more recent work examines the contemporary Tea Party), looks at the origins of American welfare policy and challenges the long-accepted notion that the United State was a laggard in developing a robust welfare state. As she demonstrates, American social programs in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were among the most generous in the world, but they focused on providing benefits to such deserving recipients as Union veterans and mothers with young children. If nothing else, the book shows us that social welfare programs are hardly new or foreign to the United States—after all, we invented some of the very earliest ones.
5. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962). Hofstander’s classic text is likely the most familiar one on the list. Although it’s been frequently cited to explain the rise of the Tea Party and other groups openly hostile to science and the academy, Hofstadter’s work is a far more nuanced and thoughtful analysis than is often presented. For Hofstander, American anti-intellectualism is a cyclical process. It’s also associated with other more desirable American cultural values, such as our democratic institutions, business acumen, and long history of evangelical Christianity. This book moves beyond simple denunciations of this anti-intellectual strain, and helps us to understand why this unfortunate tendency remains a common theme in American history and cultural life.