MixedThe Wall Street Journal... written in clear, readable prose designed for readers with little or no prior knowledge of the period, and the work has touches of wokeness, which helps to fit it nicely into this extraordinary moment in our history ... Although Mr. Taylor’s history of the period inevitably features the United States, he signals his divergence from a parochial and xenophobic account by including brief forays into the histories of the countries bordering the United States. These are left out of the usual histories of the United States, and Mr. Taylor’s use of them enriches his history ... He never fails to point out the discrepancies between the ideals of the white Americans and the sordid realities of their behavior ... He plays down the significance of that abolition movement, the first such movement by slaveholding states in the history of the world ... A more balanced account might have found room to make these points ... Mr. Taylor’s chapter on \'Democracy\' is good, but doesn’t go far enough in accounting for the democratic chaos and confusion that emerged in the North ... Mr. Taylor more than makes clear that the perpetuation of slavery, racism and the dispossession of the native peoples were tragic flaws in the history of the early Republic. Fortunately, he never claims that the white racism was endemic and systemic; unfortunately, he never offsets his depressing story with an account of the exhilaration, enthusiasm and promise inherent in this flawed democratic country that attracted millions upon millions of European immigrants. The history of the United States can never be understood, even by the victims of slavery and racism, as merely a tragic tale. Its significance both transcends and thwarts much of the brutality, bigotry and injustice of its people.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewIn this very solid, carefully and rigorously argued book, James OakesIn his final and perhaps most original chapter Oakes traces the winding route Lincoln followed in order to get to the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States once and for all. A Republican-dominated Congress might muster the two-thirds vote to pass such an amendment, but ratification by three-quarters of the states would be more difficult. During the war, Lincoln’s position became more and more radical, but, Oakes says, Lincoln was skeptical all along that emancipating slaves, even in large numbers, would ever be enough; and he always remained committed to the belief that the slave states should abolish slavery on their own. describes and analyzes the antislavery constitutionalism that emerged in a dialectical struggle with pro-slavery constitutionalism in antebellum America.
David S. Reynolds
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSome 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln—more than any other historical figure except Jesus. But there has never been one like this one by David S. Reynolds. The author, a literary scholar and historian at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has written a marvelous cultural biography that captures Lincoln in all his historical fullness ... Like any good biographer, Mr. Reynolds takes us through the important events of Lincoln’s life. But unlike previous biographers, Mr. Reynolds spends an extraordinary amount of time presenting his cultural context. In effect, his biography becomes less a narrative of Lincoln’s life than an explanation of his genius. We come to understand fully why Lincoln did what he did, and why he did it when he did it ... Because Mr. Reynolds knows so much about this forgotten culture of antebellum America—both the high and low parts of it—he is able to recover the often peculiar and evanescent incidents and conditions that influenced Lincoln’s actions and attitudes ... Using popular culture in this way, to fill out the context surrounding Lincoln, is what makes Mr. Reynolds’s biography so different and so compelling.
Mary Beth Norton
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Norton does not fundamentally challenge the traditional trajectory of events in that decisive year. What she does do is enrich the narrative, filling in the story with a staggering amount of detail based on prodigious research in an enormous number of archives. She doesn’t just tell us how many pounds of tea the East India Co. placed on seven ships sailing to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, S.C. in late 1773, but she describes the kind of tea that was sent...Some readers might think this is specification run wild ... But for Ms. Norton this is the point of her book. She wants to re-create as much as possible the past reality of this momentous year in all of its particularity. Only then, she suggests, will we come to appreciate the complexity of what happened and to understand all of the conflicts, divisions and confusion that lay behind events, like the Tea Party, that historians highlight and simplify. At times she relates events week by week, and occasionally day by day. She seeks to be as inclusive as possible and tries to incorporate all the varying points of view in her narrative. She seems to have read every newspaper in the period, and she delights in describing the give and take of debates between patriots and loyalists that took place in the press.
Joseph J. Ellis
RaveThe New York Review of BooksEllis has established himself as the Founders’ historian for our time ... Ellis has tried to select and highlight certain episodes or relationships involving the leading Founders during the first decade or so following the creation of the new national government. He has used these episodes or relationships to reveal both the characters of the major figures and the contingencies that surrounded their nation-building efforts. The result is a remarkable set of very engaging stories that can be read independently of one another ... Founding Brothers is a wonderful book, one of the best collections of essays on the Founders ever written ... He has succeeded admirably in making clear and intelligible many of the confusing contradictions of the time, and turned the Founders into palpable human beings, each with his distinctive achievements and flaws.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksThis big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written. It may do for Adams’s reputation what McCullough’s last biography did for Truman’s. This much underappreciated Founder would be pleased. He never expected posterity to honor him or erect a monument in his memory. It is about time that we did ... these are the public events in the career of this extraordinary American, and McCullough takes us through them in graceful and readable prose ... McCullough’s focus remains always on Adams and his personal relationships...Consequently, he does not engage in any academic debates with historians about their views of Adams...he does not analyze in any depth Adams’s very formidable theories about government and politics and the changes they underwent during the course of his career ... Because McCullough writes from Adams’s point of view, he occasionally takes Adams’s word for events that were sometimes questionable ... That McCullough can make us care about this couple as if they were our intimate friends is a measure of his achievement. Indeed, his special gift as an artist is his ability to recreate past human beings in all their fullness and all their humanity. In John and Abigail Adams be has found characters worthy of his talent.
RaveThe New York Review of Books[Chernow\'s] ability to master the secondary sources as well as the primary materials is the secret of his remarkable success as a biographer ... Because he also has a feel for the contentious historical issues in the lives of his characters, his book ought to satisfy academic historians as well as the general readers who may be unaware of these issues ... One comes away from the book feeling that Washington has finally become comprehensible ... Although there is nothing really original in this characterization, no one before has ever put together between two covers such a convincing depiction of the great man. It is Chernow’s well-paced and readable prose and the smooth organization of his story together with the sensible and impartial nature of his judgments that make the book so persuasive ... Chernow has written his biography with sympathetic detachment, keenly aware of the limitations of life. He has no ax to grind; his only object seems to be to render his subject as fully and as roundly as possible. His understanding of human nature is extraordinary and that is what makes his biography so powerful.
PositiveThe New Republic\"... Delbanco tends to meander and jump about in time and comment on events in an essayistic fashion. Perhaps this is because Delbanco is technically not a historian but a literary scholar. Always attentive to language, he enriches his discussion with many references to novels, poems, and other literary works, not all of which are drawn from the antebellum decades ... [Delbanco] has read and cites an enormous number of primary and secondary sources, unfortunately sometimes mingling quotations from them without identifying the author in his text. But he has the happy habit of explaining and clarifying what many historians, writing for mainly other scholars, take for granted ... Delbanco has too subtle a sensibility, too fine an appreciation of the tragedy of life, for that crude kind of history writing. Although he describes the brutality of slavery with force and clarity, and his feelings about slavery are never in doubt, he nevertheless displays a compassion for all the people, slaveholders included, caught up in circumstances they could scarcely control or even fully comprehend.\
PositiveThe New Republic\"... Wilentz sticks pretty close to the chronology of events, and focuses on his argument that the Constitution supports no property in man with persuasive and laserlike intensity ... Wilentz had his fellow historians in mind as his principal readers; they are the ones who doubt the Constitution’s legitimacy as an anti-slavery document.\
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewIn a prodigious display of historical research, Taylor has drawn on nearly a thousand books and articles, listed in his 55-page bibliography. Because he has expanded the chronology of the Revolution into the 19th century and has included so much beyond the well-known headline events, he has some difficulty fitting everything in. He often packs so many incidents into each paragraph, with actions succeeding and crowding in upon one another, that there is no space to expand and develop any one of them.
Annette Gordon Reed and Peter S. Onuf
MixedThe New York Review of BooksGordon-Reed and Onuf claim that they are not aiming to critically assess what Jefferson’s life might mean for us. Nor do they see their book as an effort to tell us how Jefferson ought to have behaved—so easy to do in retrospect. Instead, they want to understand what Jefferson himself thought he was doing in the world. They want 'to present a picture of the total man,' by which they mean to include his ideas about slavery, race, and the place of women as well as his political activity and his vision of the nation’s future ... The new book is not easy reading. It assumes that the reader already knows a good deal about Jefferson and his life, and because it is not a chronological narrative it skips about quite a bit in time and place. The book is really a series of ruminations on various aspects of Jefferson’s life, all rather loosely tied together ... So any reader expecting a full account of Jefferson’s life should go elsewhere. But if the reader already knows the outlines of his life, then this collection of reflections will be richly rewarding. It is full of fascinating insights about Jefferson ... As the book proceeds, the authors’ strenuous efforts throughout to link Jefferson’s preoccupation with family and his private household with his concerns in the larger world of the nation begin to flag and become confusing.
RaveThe New York Review of Books...Louisa Thomas’s smoothly written life of Louisa is bound to seem newer and more remarkable... Most important, as Thomas makes clear, she [Louisa Adams] had an acute capacity for honest self-scrutiny, expressed in her several autobiographical writings.
PositiveThe New York Review of Books... John Quincy Adams, who has been blessed with a recent spate of biographies, this one by James Traub being one of the best ...had spent the first twenty years of her life, as Traub says, drawing on an image Louisa herself used, 'like a happily caged songbird,' and she found it difficult to adjust to the expectations of someone like John Quincy ... Traub is often harder on John Quincy’s treatment of Louisa than is [Louisa] Thomas, who is keen to avoid any anachronism in her account.