There are just so, so many founding father period books—going back to 1789, when the first of them was published while they were still founding. (It was by Benjamin Rush’s former student, South Carolina physician-turned-writer David Ramsay, the two-volume History of the American Revolution, and I highly recommend you do not read it.)
I’m not knowledgeable enough about the Washington books to pick just one (Rush was obsessed with the multi-volume biography by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, but not because of its prose—it included a secret about him and Washington). But I’m happy to recommend these on Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and others I think are important to the story but don’t always get noticed.
John Adams by David McCullough
Still inspirational after all these years as the first, truly narrative founding father biography, which is about the characters and events, rather than the themes. Man, you have to read a lot of history books which only care about theme—with a smattering of biographical detail—on your way to telling a real human story about the real humans who birthed our nation. (McCullough’s book 1776, which came out five years later, is also wonderful.)
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The Spur of Fame edited by John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair
A fascinating 1966 book, which was the first to put together the letters between Adams and Rush as its own powerful, eight-year-long dialogue. In a way, this book is part of the inspiration for the National Archives’ wonderful Founders Online website, which combines the work of six founding father papers projects and lets you easily read letters back and forth. This idea was originally suggested in the 1940s by young historian Lyman Butterfield, who edited the Rush letters in 1951 and went on to become the landmark editor of the Adams letters.
For Franklin and Jefferson, you can’t go wrong with either of these titles, clearly the best and most engagingly modern version of those sagas. (As a former magazine writer myself, I gravitate toward biographies by my fellow longform scribblers.) For a portrait of the organization that both believed in so strongly intellectually, the American Philosophical Society, I also liked The Society for Useful Knowledge by Jonathan Lyons.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush edited by George W. Corner
Rush’s long-suppressed autobiography, which he wrote for his children in 1800, was published with annotation, along with his commonplace books, in 1948. It includes his description of every signer of the Declaration of Independence, and an enormous number of anecdotes you’ve read in other books, but we only have because Rush captured them. It unfortunately stops too soon and was written at one of Rush’s lowest points personally. Once you finish it, go onto Founders Online and read the letters between Rush and Adams from 1805–1813, which gives you the rest of the story (and a lot of the anecdotes retold differently).
Three books about the smart women writers and male/female friendships of the revolutionary period.
Freedom’s Prophet by Richard Newman
An excellent portrait of Rev. Richard Allen, the lives of enslaved and freed African Americans during and after the Revolution, and the rise of the first black churches.
Bring Out Your Dead by J. H. Powell
One of the first great micro-reported narrative disaster books, about the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, which killed 10% of the population in the nation’s capital in three months. It was first published in 1948 and still reads today like the progenitor of Devil in the White City and Erik Larson’s other terrific narrative books.
Featured Image: Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull; Author Photo: Jim Graham/Graham Studios Inc.