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American History

This list, updated annually, contains selections from the 2013-2019 New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year lists, Publishers Weekly’s annual Best Books of the Year lists, and starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist. For more reading suggestions check out the Madison Public Library Insider newsletter-- History.

Early America and the American Revolution

Cover of The British Are Coming: Th

From the bestselling author of the Liberation Trilogy comes the extraordinary first volume of his new trilogy about the American Revolution.

Available to download: Audio

Cover of Washington’s Farewell: T

George Washington's Farewell Address was a prophetic letter from a "parting friend" to his fellow citizens about the forces he feared could destroy our democracy: hyper-partisanship, excessive debt, and foreign wars. Once celebrated as civic scripture, more widely reprinted than the Declaration of Independence, the Farewell Address is now almost forgotten. Its message remains starkly relevant. In Washington's Farewell, John Avlon offers a stunning portrait of our first president and his battle to save America from self-destruction.

Cover of Young Benjamin Franklin: T

In this new account of Franklin's early life, Pulitzer finalist Nick Bunker portrays him as a complex, driven young man who elbows his way to success.

Cover of The Fever of 1721: The Epi

Stephen Coss brings to life an amazing cast of characters in a year that changed the course of medical history, American journalism, and colonial revolution, including Cotton Mather, the great Puritan preacher, son of the president of Harvard College; Zabdiel Boylston, a doctor whose name is on one of Boston's grand avenues; James and his younger brother Benjamin Franklin; and Elisha Cooke and his protégé Samuel Adams.

Cover of American Dialogue: The Fou

The award-winning author gives us a deeply insightful examination of the relevance of the views of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams to some of the most divisive issues in America today.

Cover of “Most Blessed of the Pat
Gordon-Reed & Peter S. Onuf

Jefferson was a man so riven with contradictions that he is almost impossible to know. Gordon-Reed and Onuf dispel the many clichâes that have accrued over the years, and trace his philosophical development from youth to old age. In doing so, they challenge much of what we have come to accept about Jefferson, and reintroduce us to a man more gifted than most, but complicated in just the ways we all are.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of Scars of Independence: Ame

The American Revolution is often portrayed as an orderly, restrained rebellion, with brave patriots defending their noble ideals against an oppressive empire. It's a stirring narrative, and one the founders did their best to encourage after the war. But as historian Holger Hoock shows in this account of America's founding, the Revolution was not only a high-minded battle over principles, but also a profoundly violent civil war--one that shaped the nation, and the British Empire, in ways we have only begun to understand.

Cover of Marooned: Jamestown, Shipw

A groundbreaking history that makes the case for replacing Plymouth Rock with Jamestown as America's founding myth.

Cover of The Pioneers: The Heroic S

Best-selling author David McCullough tells the story of the settlers who began America's migration west, overcoming almost-unimaginable hardships to build in the Ohio wilderness a town and a government that incorporated America's highest ideals.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of Surviving Genocide: Native

In this book, the first part of a sweeping two-volume history, Jeffrey Ostler investigates how American democracy relied on Indian dispossession and the federally sanctioned use of force to remove or slaughter Indians in the way of U.S. expansion. He charts the losses that Indians suffered from relentless violence and upheaval and the attendant effects of disease, deprivation, and exposure. This volume centers on the eastern United States from the 1750s to the start of the Civil War.

Cover of Valiant Ambition: George W

A surprising account of the middle years of the American Revolution and the tragic relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of Escalante's Dream: On the

Famed adventure writer David Roberts retraces the route of the legendary 1776 Domínguez-Escalante expedition.

Cover of The Witches: Salem, 1692

Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff provides an electrifying, fresh view of the Salem witch trials.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of Revolution Song: A Story o

At a time when America's founding principles are being debated as never before, Russell Shorto looks back to the era in which those principles were forged. In Revolution Song, Shorto weaves the lives of six people into a seamless narrative that casts fresh light on the range of experience in colonial America on the cusp of revolution. The result is a brilliant defense of American values with a compelling message: the American Revolution is still being fought today, and its ideals are worth defending.

Cover of This Land Is Their Land: T
David J.

A new look at the Plymouth colony's founding events, told for the first time with Wampanoag people at the heart of the story.

19th Century America and the Civil War

Cover of Frederick Douglass: Prophe
David W.

The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of Heirs of the Founders: The

In the early days of the nineteenth century, three young men strode onto the national stage, elected to Congress at a moment when the Founding Fathers were beginning to retire to their farms. Together this second generation of American founders took the country to war, battled one another for the presidency, and tasked themselves with finishing the work the Founders had left undone.  Above all, they sought to remedy the two glaring flaws in the Constitution- its fudge on where authority ultimately rested, with the states or the nation; and its unwillingness to address the essential incompatibility of republicanism and slavery.

Cover of Grant

Ulysses S. Grant's life has typically been misunderstood. All too often he is caricatured as a chronic loser and inept businessman, or as the triumphant but brutal Union general of the Civil War. But these stereotypes don't come close to capturing him, as Ron Chernow shows in his masterful biography, the first to provide a complete understanding of the general and president whose fortunes rose and fell with dizzying speed and frequency.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of The Earth Is Weeping: The

With the end of the Civil War, the nation recommenced its expansion onto traditional Indian tribal lands, setting off a wide-ranging conflict that would last more than three decades. In an exploration of the wars and negotiations that destroyed tribal ways of life even as they made possible the emergence of the modern United States, Peter Cozzens gives us both sides in comprehensive and singularly intimate detail. 

Cover of The War Before the War: Fu

Explains how fugitive slaves escaping from the South to the northern states awakened northerners to the true nature of slavery and how the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act divided the nation and set it on the path to civil war.

Cover of Thunder at the Gates: The
Douglas R.

An intimate, authoritative history of the first black soldiers to fight in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Cover of Gateway to Freedom: The Hi

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner relates the dramatic story of fugitive slaves and the antislavery activists who defied the law to help them reach freedom.

Cover of The Second Founding: How t

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar comes a timely history of the constitutional changes that built equality into the nation's foundation and how those guarantees have been shaken over time.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of The Field of Blood: Violen
Joanne B.

Joanne B. Freeman recovers the long-lost story of physical violence on the floor of the U.S. Congress.  Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, she shows that the Capitol was rife with conflict in the decades before the Civil War. Freeman's dramatic accounts of brawls and thrashings tell a larger story of how fisticuffs and journalism, and the powerful emotions they elicited, raised tensions between North and South and led toward war. 

Cover of Stony the Road: Reconstruc
Henry Louis
Gates, Jr.

The abolition of slavery after the Civil War is a familiar story, as is the civil rights revolution that transformed the nation after World War II. But the century in between remains a mystery: if emancipation sparked 'a new birth of freedom' in Lincoln's America, why was it necessary to march in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s America? Gates uncovers the roots of structural racism in our own time, while showing how African-Americans after slavery combatted it by articulating a vision of a 'New Negro' to force the nation to recognise their humanity and unique contributions to the United States.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of Hymns of the Republic: The

The fourth and final year of the Civil War offers one of the most compelling narratives and one of history's great turning points. Now, Pulitzer Prize finalist S.C. Gwynne breathes new life into the epic battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant; the advent of 180,000 black soldiers in the Union army; William Tecumseh Sherman's March to the Sea; the rise of Clara Barton; the election of 1864 (which Lincoln nearly lost); the wild and violent guerrilla war in Missouri; and the dramatic final events of the war, including Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the murder of Abraham Lincoln.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of Rebel Yell: The Violence,

A thrilling account of how Civil War general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson became a great and tragic American hero.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of A Nation Without Borders:
Steven A.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian's provocative reinterpretation of the eight decades surrounding the Civil War and leading into the twentieth century.

Cover of The Kelloggs: The Battling

Howard Markel tells the sweeping saga of American empire builders John and Will Kellogg, whose lifelong competition and enmity toward one another changed America's notion of health and wellness from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, and who helped change the course of American medicine, nutrition, wellness, and diet.

Cover of Vicksburg: Grant's Campaig
Donald L.

An award-winning account of the longest and most decisive military campaign of the Civil War in Vicksburg, Mississippi, which opened the Mississippi River, split the Confederacy, freed tens of thousands of slaves, and made Ulysses S. Grant the most important general of the war.

Cover of Girl in Black and White: T

Presents the story of slave Mary Mildred Williams, whose fair-skinned appearance rendered her the poster child of the American abolitionist movement and influenced the line where white sympathy was drawn and recognized.

Cover of Thunder in the Mountains:
Daniel J.

Chronicles the epic clash between General Oliver Otis Howard, who took on a mission in the Pacific Northwest to force Native Americans onto reservations, and the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, who refused to leave his ancestral land.

Cover of When Britain Burned the Wh

In his compelling narrative style, Peter Snow recounts the fast-changing fortunes of the summer of 1848's extraordinary confrontations, highlighting this unparalleled moment in British and American history: the courageous, successful defense of Fort McHenry and the American triumph that would follow, and America's and Britain's decision to never again fight each other.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of Astoria: Astor and Jeffers

The thrilling, true-adventure tale of the 1810 Astor Expedition, an epic, now forgotten, three-year journey to forge an American empire on the Pacific Coast. Peter Stark offers a harrowing saga in which a band of explorers battled nature, starvation, and madness to establish the first American settlement in the Pacific Northwest and opened up what would become the Oregon trail, permanently altering the nation's landscape and its global standing.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of The Best Land Under Heaven

An account of the 1846 Donner-Reed expedition reveals the true events surrounding the tragedy, profiling the adventurous characters who shaped the group and how various interpersonal factors led to their harrowing experiences.

Cover of American Ulysses: A Life o
Ronald C.
White and Arthur Morey

A major new biography of one of America's greatest generals-and most misunderstood presidents.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of The Impeachers: The Trial

With profound insights and making use of extensive research, Brenda Wineapple dramatically evokes a pivotal period in American history, when the country was rocked by the first-ever impeachment of a sitting American president. 

20th Century America

Cover of He Calls Me by Lightning:
S. Jonathan

A reconstruction of the life of a wrongfully convicted man whose story becomes an historic portrait of the Jim Crow South.

Cover of The Firebrand and the Firs

A groundbreaking book--two decades in the works--that tells the story of how a brilliant writer-turned-activist, granddaughter of a mulatto slave, and the first lady of the United States, whose ancestry gave her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, forged an enduring friendship that changed each of their lives and helped to alter the course of race and racism in America.

Cover of The Poison Squad: One Chem

The dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of American Moonshot: John F.

The award winning historian and perennial New York Times bestselling author takes a fresh look at the space program, President John F. Kennedy's inspiring challenge, and America's race to the moon.

Available to download: Audio

Cover of Behold, America: The Entan

Sarah Churchwell offers a surprising account of twentieth-century Americans' fierce battle for the nation's soul. It follows the stories of two phrases--the "American dream" and "America First"--that once embodied opposing visions for America.

Cover of Separate and Unequal: The
Steven M.

The definitive history of the Kerner Commission, whose report on urban unrest reshaped American debates about race and inequality.

Cover of The Flight: Charles Lindbe

From one of the most decorated pilots in Air Force history comes a masterful account of Lindbergh's death-defying nonstop transatlantic flight.

Cover of The Queens of Animation: T

The untold story of the women of Walt Disney Studios, who shaped the iconic films that have enthralled generations.

Cover of Rise of the Rocket Girls:

In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn't turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible. For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women -- known as "human computers" -- who broke the boundaries of both gender and science.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of Black Elk: The Life of an

The epic life story of the Native American holy man who has inspired millions around the world.

Cover of Kennedy and King: The Pres

This vital, vivid contribution to the literature of the Civil Rights Movement traces the emergence of two of the twentieth century's greatest leaders, their powerful impact on each other and on the shape of the civil rights battle between 1960 and 1963.

Cover of The War on Alcohol: Prohib

Prohibition has long been portrayed as a "noble experiment" that failed, a newsreel story of glamorous gangsters, flappers and speakeasies. Now Lisa McGirr dismantles this myth to reveal a much more significant history.

Cover of Ike and McCarthy: Dwight E
David A.

Revealed for the first time, this is the full story of how President Dwight Eisenhower masterminded the downfall of the anti-Communist demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Cover of The Invisible Bridge: The

A dazzling portrait of America on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the tumultuous political and economic times of the 1970s.

Cover of Hissing Cousins: The Untol
Peyser & Timothy Dwyer

A lively and provocative double biography of first cousins Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, two extraordinary women whose tangled lives provide a sweeping look at the twentieth century.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of Hidden Figures: The Americ
Margot Lee

The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA at the leading edge of the feminist and civil rights movement, whose calculations helped fuel some of America's greatest achievements in space--a powerful, revelatory contribution to our understanding of race, discrimination, and achievement in modern America.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of On His Own Terms: A Life o
Richard Norton

From acclaimed historian Richard Norton Smith comes the definitive life of an American icon: Nelson Rockefeller--one of the most complex and compelling figures of the twentieth century.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of Keep the Wretches in Order

In the first legal history of the largest mass trial in U.S. history, Dean Strang shows how the case laid the groundwork for a fundamentally different strategy to stifle radical threats, and had a major role in shaping the modern Justice Department.

Cover of The Roosevelts: An Intimat
Geoffrey C.
Ward & Ken Burns

An extraordinarily vivid and personal portrait of America's greatest political family and its enormous impact on our nation--the tie-in volume to the PBS documentary that aired in the fall of 2014.

Cover of The Woman’s Hour: The Gr

The nail-biting climax of one of the greatest political battles in American history: the ratification of the constitutional amendment that granted women the right to vote.

21st Century America

Cover of The Meaning of Michelle: 1

Michelle Obama is unlike any other First Lady in American History. From her first moments on the public stage, she has challenged traditional American notions about what it means to be beautiful, to be strong, to be fashion-conscious, to be healthy, to be First Mom, to be a caretaker and hostess, and to be partner to the most powerful man in the world. While many books have looked at Michelle Obama from a fashion perspective, no book has fully explored what Michelle Obama means to our culture. The Meaning of Michelle does just that, while offering a parting gift to a landmark moment in American history.

Available to download: Audio

Cover of It’s Better Than It Look

Easterbrook offers specific policy reforms to address climate change, inequality, and other problems, and reminds us that there is real hope in conquering such challenges. 

Cover of Rising Star: The Making of

The definitive account of Barack Obama's formative years that made him the man who became the forty-fourth president of the United States--from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of The Only Plane in the Sky:
Garrett M.

Drawing on never-before-published transcripts, recently declassified documents, original interviews, and oral histories from nearly five hundred government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends, and family members, award-winning journalist and bestselling historian Garrett Graff paints the most vivid and human portrait of the September 11 attacks yet.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of Grace Will Lead Us Home: T

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes provides the definitive account of the aftermath of the tragic 2015 shooting at the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. With unprecedented access to the grieving families and other key figures, Hawes offers a nuanced and moving portrait of the events and emotions that emerged in the massacre's wake. 

Cover of Reckoning: The Epic Batle

The first history--incisive, witty, fascinating--of the fight against sexual harassment, from a New York Times bestselling author.

Cover of Kochland: The Secret Histo

Uses the extraordinary account of how one of the biggest private companies in the world grew to be that big to tell the story of modern corporate America.

Available to download: Audio

Cover of The Soul of America; The B

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham helps us understand the present moment in American politics and life by looking back at critical times in our history when hope overcame division and fear.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of Michelle Obama: a Life

With disciplined reporting and a storyteller's eye for revealing detail, Peter Slevin follows Michelle to the White House from her working-class childhood on Chicago's largely segregated South Side.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of Crashed: How a Decade of F

From a prizewinning economic historian, an eye-opening reinterpretation of the 2008 economic crisis (and its ten-year aftermath) as a global event that directly led to the shockwaves being felt around the world today.

Social and Cultural History

Cover of Fantasyland: How America W

Explains how the influences of dreamers, zealots, hucksters, and superstitious groups shaped America's tendency toward a rich fantasy life, citing the roles of individuals from P.T. Barnum to Donald Trump in perpetuating conspiracy theories, self-delusion, and magical thinking.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of  A Fool's Errand: Creating
Bunch III

Founding Director Lonnie Bunch's inside story of how the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture was created. By turns inspiring, funny, frustrating, quixotic, and bittersweet, this is his deeply personal tale of the challenges and rewards of bringing a nationally acclaimed new institution to life.

Cover of El Norte: The Epic and For

Chronicles the sweeping and dramatic history of Hispanic North America from the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century to the present--from Ponce de Leon's initial landing in Florida in 1513 to Spanish control of the vast Louisiana territory in 1762 to the Mexican-American War in 1846 and up to the more recent tragedy of post-hurricane Puerto Rico and the ongoing border acrimony with Mexico.

Cover of The Longest Trail: Writing
Alvin M.
Josephy Jr.

Alvin Josephy Jr.'s groundbreaking, popular books and essays advocated for a fair and true historical assessment of Native Americans, and set the course for modern Native American studies. This collection, which includes magazine articles, speeches, a white paper, and introductions and chapters of books, gives a generous and reasoned view of five hundred years of Indian history in North America.

Cover of Lakota America: A New Hist

This first complete account of the Lakota Indians traces their rich and often surprising history from the early sixteenth to the early twenty‑first century.

Cover of White Trash: The 400-year

A history of the class system in America from the colonial era to the present illuminates the crucial legacy of the underprivileged white demographic, citing the pivotal contributions of lower-class white workers in wartime, social policy, and the rise of the Republican Party.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of The Making of Asian Americ

The definitive history of Asian Americans by one of the nation's preeminent scholars on the subject.

Cover of These Truths: A History of

In the most ambitious one-volume American history in decades, award-winning historian Jill Lepore offers a magisterial account of the origins and rise of a divided nation.

Available to download: eBook

Cover of If You Can Keep It: The Fo

Bestselling author Eric Metaxas delivers an extraordinary book that is part history and part rousing call to arms, steeped in a critical analysis of our founding fathers' original intentions for America.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of The Color of Law: A Forgot

In this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America's cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation--that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation--the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments--that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of A More Beautiful and Terri

The civil rights movement has become national legend, lauded by presidents from Reagan to Obama to Trump, as proof of the power of American democracy. This fable has shuttered the movement firmly in the past, whitewashed the forces that stood in its way, and diminished its scope. And it is used perniciously in our own times to chastise present-day movements and obscure contemporary injustice. Award-winning historian Jeanne Theoharis dissects this national myth-making, teasing apart the accepted stories to show them in a strikingly different light.

Cover of The Heartbeat of Wounded K

A sweeping history—and counter-narrative—of Native American life from the Wounded Knee massacre to the present.

Available to download: eBook Audio

Cover of One Day: The Extraordinary

A journalist pulls a random day in history from a hat to see if he can make a worthwhile news story from what happened. The result is One Day, a deeply illuminating and affecting exploration of the quiet dramas and human interaction that make a seemingly insignificant day - December 28th, 1986 - into an important, poignant part of American history.

Available to download: Audio