Joseph J. Ellis and Richard Brookhiser are my literary version of ’03-’04 Manny and Big Papi when it comes to early U.S. history biographies. They knock every single book out of the park on the subject. I’ve been reading about the American Revolution as a side-hobby ever since I got out of college. This is all the more amazing to me personally because while I was in college and high school, I don’t think I paid attention for 5 minutes during a US History class. I’d love to say that all of my teachers sucked and I was a budding US History major just dying to be found… but that’s not the case. I was lazy and uninterested in the subject when it was forced on me.
Either way, at some point around age 22 or 23 I found myself lacking in knowledge of most things beyond sports, movies, movies about sports, comic books, swimming, bench press and Seinfeld, so I undertook my own secondary education to catch up on books and subjects that I found interesting and important…that process is still ongoing today. The first masters course at what I self-named FU (Finkel University) was U.S. History, particularly, the American Revolution, the founding fathers, and what the colonies were really like from the horrors of slavery all the way up to the ideals of the Bill of Rights.
I think at this point I’ve read every Ellis and Brookhiser creation. Ellis wrote several books that cover various aspects of the Revolution, like Revolutionary Summer and American Creation, both outstanding books, but since I’m focusing on singular biographies in this post, these two top the list.
His Excellency: George Washington by: Joseph J. Ellis
Washington was built by history to lead a revolution. He was tough. He was stoic. He was unbreakable. At times he was impossible to get a read on. He had a monumental temper that he fought his whole life to control. He cared about decorum and civility and liberty. He was half a foot taller than most other men during his time. He was largely self-educated. He looked like a king but had no desire to be one. He had horses shot out from under him, plots launched against him and the entire British army after him… And yet… He won. Then at the peak of his powers he willingly walked away. This book explains it all – buy it here.
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
This book won the National Book Award and in my opinion is the best book on Jefferson ever written. Again, I don’t have a PhD in history and I don’t pretend to have one. I just like reading this stuff. The biggest takeaway I had from this book was that of all the founding fathers, except maybe Adams, Jefferson was the most self aware of the history he was creating with every decision he’d make and word he’d write. His obvious blindspot was his reliance on slavery, his affair with Sally Hemmings and the overall manner in which he treated the subject. In terms of founding a country, however, sometimess it seemed like he was even doing things just to cover his butt for future generations, almost like he was taking literary selfies that he knew Americans would still want to look at hundreds of years later. Read it today – you’ll learn so much about one of the most complicated, brilliant, flawed men ever to make his mark on history.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
Franklin was a really good swimmer as a kid. Like the best among his buddies. Did you know that? I didn’t. Think about that image, for a moment, rather than the old, pudgy guy with the glasses. This book provides hundreds of mental snapshots like that. It also covers the formation of the thoughts behind his wisdom, his singular popularity, his petty relationships with rivals, strange relationships with his son and wife, his affinity for non-romantic relationships with women half his age, his personality conflicts with other founders and more. He also had an incredible desire to found social clubs and be social – but he strived to not have many close friends. The man was filled with contradictions and complications and it all adds up to one of the most compelling life stories you’ll come across. An absolutely brilliant read.
James Madison by Richard Brookhiser
I’m a little biased on this one because I attended James Madison University and went through my own little phase devouring books on Madison. As a writer, he may have only been surpassed in volume by Alexander Hamilton. As a thinker, maybe Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams were on his level. Maybe. Beyond that, Madison’s mind essentially built the framework of what would become the United States. Other US History geeks might point to other Brookhiser books like Founding Father or Alexander Hamilton: American, as better books, and I’m not going to argue. I loved them both. But since Madison is often overlooked, and at the end of the day was easily one of the top 6 most important founders along with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton, this book deserves to be on the list and you should read it.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
I wrote about why Hamilton might be the greatest ghostwriter of all time here. This book is a beast but it lives up to all of the hype. In some ways, Hamilton is like the Zelig of the Revolution, popping up at nearly every crucial moment… In battle, in congress, behind the scenes, in drafting documents…everything. He was a man of action and letters and may have the most sheer mental horsepower of any founder. This book will blow you away and deserves every award it received.
Yes, I left off the famous and amazing John Adams book by David McCullough because honestly, the HBO series was so great you could just watch that. I also left off others, but remember, this is my list, not yours. And don’t forget, I wrote the on US Presidents and their athletic ability called Jocks In Chief, which was featured in the New York Post and on CBS This Morning.
Thanks for reading!
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Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of Hoops Heist, The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height, “Mean” Joe Greene and more. His books have been endorsed by everyone from Mark Cuban and Tony Dungy to Spike Lee, Kevin Durant and Chef Robert Irvine. He has written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and has appeared on CBS: This Morning, Good Morning Texas, and hundreds of radio shows, podcasts and streams.