Suggested Biographies

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    The purpose of this topic is to build a reading list of biographies of notable figures relevant to American history.

    As requests for biography suggestions from students and responses from the faculty are posted on this topic, I will update the list below.

    Thank you in advance for your requests and suggestions.

    Suggested biographies:

    Founding Fathers Compilations
    Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers, Brion McClanahan
    Founding Fathers, M.E. Bradford

    John Adams
    Samuel Adams
    Charles Carroll
    George Clinton
    John Dickinson “The Political Writings of John Dickinson” (available for free on Google books), “The Great Convention as Comic Action” in Original Intentions, M.E. Bradford
    Ben Franklin
    Elbridge Gerry
    Alexander Hamilton
    Patrick Henry A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic, Henry Mayer
    John Hancock
    James Jackson Forgotten Conservatives in American History, Brion McClanahan & Clyde Wilson
    John Jay
    Thomas Jefferson Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone, For Dr. Gutzman’s post with many more Jefferson suggestions by subject area, click here,
    Nathaniel Macon
    James MadisonJames Madison and the Making of America, Kevin Gutzman
    John Marshall
    George Mason
    Roger Sherman
    John Taylor Forgotten Conservatives in American History, Brion McClanahan & Clyde Wilson
    George Washington


    Specific authors? Already read James Madison by Dr. Gutzman,,, Would prefer to continue reading from authors that report the history “correctly”. Dr. Gutzman’s writing style was excellent BTW!


    I provide reading suggestions and biographical vignettes of every man on the list with the exception of Jay in my “Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers.” I also cover Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Francis Marion, George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, Nathanial Macon (underrated), John Marshall (overrated), Roger Sherman (underrated), and John Taylor of Caroline (most consistent Jeffersonian). I also touch on several members of the founding generation in my “Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution.,” though not in great detail.

    Everyone should read M.E. Bradford’s “Founding Fathers” and “A Better Guide Than Reason.”

    Clyde Wilson also has a great essay on Taylor as well as forgotten founder James Jackson in our forthcoming “Forgotten Conservatives in American History.”


    Thank you for your replies.

    Are there any suggestions for a good book-length biography on John Dickinson?

    And which to choose out of the many Jefferson biographies available?


    Jefferson biographies come in every conceivable flavor. If you have a very large appetite, the place to start is Dumas Malone’s six-volume biography. It used to be that Merrill Peterson’s lengthy one-volume treatment won pride of place after Malone’s work, but I find it exceedingly dull — quite a difficult attribute to impart to a study of Thomas Jefferson.

    For Jefferson’s presidency, read McDonald’s acerbic take. For a popular approach to Jefferson, there’s Ellis. For the Sally Hemings saga, try Gordon-Reed’s first book. Mayer is excellent on Jefferson and constitutional thought — state and federal. For Jeffersonian political economy, I recommend McCoy’s _The Elusive Republic_. Jeffersonian foreign policy is the subject of the Onufs’ _Federal Union, Modern World_, which I quite like.

    A fine book of essays on various questions Jeffersonian is Peter Onuf, ed., _Jeffersonian Legacies_. There you’ll find outstanding chapters on Jefferson and slavery, Jefferson and religion, Jefferson and foreign policy, etc. Still the place to start for Jefferson’s presidency is Henry Adams’s multi-volume book (available in one volume from the Library of America). Adams was a fine prose stylist with an engaged, critical approach (he was John Adams’s great-grandson).

    I’m currently working on a volume about the Jefferson-Hamilton rivalry, which will be published in 2014 (if the Good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise). If you have questions about books covering Jefferson and other topics, just ask. I would note that David Barton’s book on TJ, like most of his oeuvre, is tendentious and unreliable: he starts from his conclusions and then tries to prove them, often by miscasting evidence. Avoid.


    As to Dickinson, see the brief mention in M.E. Bradford’s immortal essay “The Great Convention as Comic Action,” which appears in his _Original Intentions_. I think that Bradford captures Dickinson quite nicely there.


    You can also read “The Political Writings of John Dickinson” in 2 vols for free on Google Books. Well worth the time and energy.


    Thank you, gentlemen. Book list updated accordingly.


    In the past, Kevin has recommended A Son of Thunder as a biography of Patrick Henry.


    I’ve been recommended David McCullough’s John Adams as a popular approach and enjoyable reading regarding the life of the second president. Any opinions on this book?


    I’ve read David McCullough’s ‘John Adams’, but It has been a year or two. While I enjoyed aspects of the book, McCullough seemed to be almost biased against Thomas Jefferson. He seemed to always cast him in a negative light, especially when discussing the strained relationship between him and Adams. I wonder if anyone else has picked up on that?


    I would agree with that assessment of McCullough’s book. I still thoroughly enjoyed it, but there’s not doubting that McCullough is sympathetic to the Federalists.


    There are numerous good books on John Adams. Among them are Ellis’s _Passionate Sage_ and Ferling’s _John Adams_. If you care about Adams as political thinker, C. Bradley Thompson’s _John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty_ is outstanding. Here’s my review of it:

    McCullough’s Adams pulls off the astounding feat of considering Adams’s life in great detail without saying much of anything about his political thought. If for no other reason, that’s a sufficient cause to skip it.


    Is Joseph J. Ellis a trustworthy author? I’ve been told to avoid his books because of some sort of controversy with his writings,


    The controversy concerned his college lectures, in which he falsely claimed to have been in Vietnam as a soldier during the War. His _Passionate Sage_ is outstanding.

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