Summer Reading: The Founding Fathers List

Amid the fireworks, barbecue and patriotic music, the meaning of Independence Day can sometimes get lost.

Now that the three-day weekend is over, it’s not a bad time to get a little reading in on the Founding Fathers.

For Members of Congress and their staffs, it’s also not a bad idea to brush up on the facts to further their arguments about the Constitution — or even just to avoid making a gaffe about Paul Revere or the battles of Lexington and Concord.

To find the best books to read on the Founding Fathers, we asked six historians for their recommendations: Mark Peterson, associate professor of American history at the University of California, Berkeley; Barbara Oberg, professor of history at Princeton University; Daniel Howe, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles; Mary Beth Norton, professor of American history at Cornell University; Philip Morgan, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University; and Isaac Kramnick, professor of government at Cornell. Here are their picks:

“Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788” by Pauline Maier

Peterson has a problem with the term “Founding Fathers.”

“It falsely turns real people into idols and does damage to our understanding of how democratic, multifaceted and contentious the founding of the U.S. was,” he said.

To counter this conception, he suggested reading “Ratification,” which shows “how many different kinds of people, in every state and on both sides of the ratification debate, were fundamental to the process of developing the Constitution.”

Oberg agrees, saying Maier “sees the story of the Constitution from the point of view not of the framers, but of those many individuals who debated ratification in taverns and village greens.”

Howe recommends the book because it goes beyond the drafting of the Constitution and looks at how it was ratified.

“This shifts the focus away from the small group of men who met at Philadelphia to the much larger public that debated their work and ultimately decided to adopt it,” he said. “It provides a nice balance to the concentration on a few leaders to a consideration of the functioning of early American democracy.”

“Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America” by Jack Rakove

Howe calls Rakove the “leading historian of the Founding Fathers.”

“Revolutionaries,” Howe said, explains how “the various individual founders each come to take up the cause of revolution, when most of them were quite moderate in their views.”

This focus on the individual motivations of the Founding Fathers sets the book apart from others covering the same general topic.

According to Norton, Rakove “is unique in devoting attention to moderate as well as radical leaders and in his commitment to examining men from all regions of the colonies, rather than simply focusing on Bostonians or Philadelphians.”

“Fame and the Founding Fathers” by Douglass Adair

This is another book that looks at the motivations of the Founding Fathers, but it brings to light the less noble motivation of fame.

Kramnick said it is “one of the best books about the Founding Fathers and gives a profound insight into their motives beyond the immediate goal of gaining independence.”

According to Adair, the Founding Fathers were very familiar with the work of classical authors such as Plutarch, Francis Bacon and David Hume, who all believed that fame and glory were reserved for “lawgivers” and the “founders of states and commonwealths.”

“Adair argues that they saw that what they were doing as nation builders would give them everlasting fame, which, of course, has been the case,” Kramnick said.

“Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America” by Linda K. Kerber

As Peterson noted, there were many, many more people involved in the founding of America than just the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. 

Kerber comprehensively researched the writings and legal records of women at the time to paint a picture of how they, as innkeepers, nurses, cooks, spies, fundraisers and recruiters, contributed to the battle for American independence.  

But beyond the roles women played in the war, Kerber also looks at the status of women at the time and what their own motivations and beliefs were.

Norton said the book is one of the “best discussions” on the topic of women in the Revolution because it looks at their intellectual history.

Norton’s own book “Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800” on the social history of women at the time touches on a similar topic.

“The Negro in the American Revolution” by Benjamin Quarles

This book stretches the traditional definition of the Founding Fathers.

Written by a legendary African-American historian, “The Negro in the American Revolution” tells the often-overlooked story of the roles African-Americans played in the Revolution. It also looks at the high irony of people who fought for the idea of “unalienable rights” while remaining slaves.

“It explores how the Declaration of Independence spoke to the black struggle for freedom, demonstrating that there were black as well as white founders,” Morgan said.

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