Recommended Textbooks for American History

Update 2019: Since I retired a few years ago, I no longer keep up with the textbook industry. But I will offer the following.

Some years ago I attended a tech conference for teachers and discovered a self-publishing company called Lulu. Since the website on which you are now located was already in progress, I completed it and published it as a two-volume textbook which my students could get for a fraction of the cost of books in the bookstore. Since then the Open Educational Resources movement has gotten into high gear. Sage American history is available through that organization. They provide links to multiple history resources at low cost.
In addition, Wikipedia, to which I am a contributor, now has hundreds of sites on American history events, most of which are well edited and completely credible. In other words, you no longer need an expensive textbook in order to complete most courses in American history. Numerous online resources are available on almost any imaginable subject.

I am leaving the page below in place for what useful information it might contain.

Many excellent textbooks for American history exist. But before you rush out and buy one, there a few things you might want to consider.

First, the price of textbooks has risen more rapidly than the price of regular trade books, in both hardcover and soft. Textbook manufacturers often rush to get the latest editions into print, and the upgrade costs to publishers raise the price of textbooks. Fierce competition exists among textbook publishers because of those costs, and because there are so many available. All sorts of incentives are offered to teachers (and students) to get them to adopt a certain text, and that can also drive up costs. More recently, textbook publishers have begun offering CDs, web resources, course packs to go with systems like Blackboard, test banks, etc. Those cost also.

In other words, text books are expensive. If you are a college student, you already know that. And you also know that the Internet has created alternatives that make the publishers' situation even more challenging.

You should also understand that textbooks are written from a particular point of view. Few if any truly objective textbooks exist because the historians who write them have over their years of studying American history developed attitudes and ideas about their subject. There's nothing wrong with that, because as one becomes engaged with history, it is impossible not to develop attitudes and feelings about one's work. Most responsible historians try to show both sides of any picture, and most do a good job of that. But that does not mean that all textbooks are equal, or that you will get the same view of American history no matter what textbook you pick up.

For much of the last century most American history textbooks presented a more or less unvarnished, positive view of America's past. They often neglected the problems of working-class peoples, African-Americans and other minorities, the legacy of slavery, the rights of women, conditions in urban slums, abuses of workers, and many other topics; all of those areas received less than adequate treatment for a long time. During the 1960s, which among other things was a time for Americans to re-examine their past, corrective measures began to be taken in the publishing of texts. Sometimes the corrections may have gone further than they needed. Some critics of “revisionist” histories, as they are called, suggested that the great events and major figures in the past were being slighted in favor of the “unknowns.” Essays appeared with titles such as, “Revisionists in Need of Revising.”

At this writing in 2005 a sense of balance seems to have been restored, but textbooks will always have attitudes. What you have to do for yourself is to read widely, read critically, read reviews of published books on history—and they come out by the hundreds—and eventually make up your own mind about what view of history you choose to embrace. Keep an open mind for as long as you can, and be prepared to modify your views as new evidence appears, as it inevitably will.

Below is a list of some recommended texts each of which will give you a solid view of American history, even if the point of view may vary from book to book. These books come in a variety of formats: hard or softcover, one-, two- and three-volume editions, brief editions, sometimes with CDs, associated web sites, etc. They are frequently updated, so later editions may exist. For the latest infomation, go to the publisher's web site.

  • Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2004.
    • Brinkley is an excellent historian and fine writer.
  • Divine, Robert A., T. H. Breen, George M. Fredrickson, R. Hal Williams, Ariela J. Gross, and H. W. Brands. America Past and Present. 7th ed. Pearson Longman, 2004
    • New Authors added in latest edition. All are university professors. I have used this as a text and found it very good. It reads well.
  • Berkin, Carol, Christopher Miller, Robert Cherny and James Gormley. Making America:  A History of the United States. 3rd. ed, Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
    • I have used this text in the past and found it very good also.
  • Carnes, Mark C. and John A. Garraty. The American Nation, 11th ed., Longman, 2003.
    • Now in its 11th edition, this old workhorse has been around a long time. We used to use it on our campus but went to another for a fresh approach.
  • Bailey, Thomas A., David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic. 12th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
    • Another old workhorse.
  • Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. 4th ed, HarperCollins, 2003.
    • Very critical but respected. You might check the reviews of Zinn at Amazon. He's not your grandmother's historian.
  • Norton, Mary Beth, et. al. A People and a Nation:  A History of the United States. 7th ed., Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
    • Norton has written a great deal on Women in American history.
  • Bailyn, Bernard, Robert Dallek, David Donald, John Thomas and Gordon Wood. The Great Republic:  A History of the American People. 4tn ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
    • All first-rate historians and fine writers.
  • Smith, Page. A People's History of the United States. 8 volumes, McGraw-Hill, 1976-1986
  • Tindall, George Brown. America: A Narrative History.
    • A good-reading history that tells the story well. A favorite of mine, which I still consult.
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