10 Great Books on American Economic History

A discussion of ten great books that help us better understand American economic history. Each of the selections is very readable and highly engaging.

Mar 8, 2014 at 8:00AM

The attempt to create a colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 got off to a catastrophic start. After just the first year, only 38 of the original 108 colonists remained alive. And death rates over the first two decades continued to be staggeringly high.

Despite this disastrous beginning, the United States is now a nation of more than 300 million people with a GDP of more than $16 trillion. How this happened is one of the most remarkable stories in human history.

Below, I've selected 10 books that help us better understand this unlikely transformation. Each of them is highly readable and thought-provoking. I hope you enjoy them.

1. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
In the early days of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton offered competing visions for America's economic future. Jefferson envisioned a nation of decentralized communities with the independent yeoman farmer as the ideal. And Hamilton foresaw a rapidly growing nation based on modern industries and a strong central government.

We now know that Hamilton's vision won out in the end. Ron Chernow writes, "Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton's America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world." This biography is a fascinating and readable account of the underappreciated founding father.

2. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States by David Hounshell
American manufacturing was so unique in the early 19th century that it became known by Europeans as "The American System." And that particular system eventually developed and evolved into the mass production methods of the 20th century. Obviously, this is foundational for understanding American history.

Hounshell tells the story well, though this book is one of the most challenging on this list of 10. You may want to dip into it for chapters that interest you. Back in my teaching days, I assigned chapter six, "The Ford Motor Company and the Rise of Mass Production."

3. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South by Kenneth Stampp
Published in 1956, this work has been described as one of the most influential books in modern history. Prior to Stampp, the orthodox view of slavery held that it was a somewhat benign institution that might not have been all that profitable. Stampp, however, showed that the "peculiar institution" was actually quite harsh and extremely profitable. For many historians, Stampp's interpretation became the orthodox view on this subject.

4. A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner
The end of the Civil War raised a lot of questions for the United States. How would the former slaves and their descendants support themselves? Who would ensure that their civil rights would be protected? How would the southern states return to the Union, and how would their economies be rebuilt?

Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Columbia University, provides insightful answers to those questions. A Short History of Reconstruction is an abridged version of his more academic study Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. I just read the latter work, but feel the shorter book would be an excellent choice for newcomers to this field.

5. The Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner
Frederick Turner's thesis is simple. He declared in 1893:

Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. 

This was a highly original idea at the time, and the "Turner thesis" has been very influential over the years. Anyone interested in American history should become familiar with his ideas.

6. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H.W. Brands
This well-written and highly engaging book discusses the activities of corporate titans like J. Pierpont Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. This was an era when powerful capitalists dominated American life. Brands tells this story in a clear and accessible way.

7. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin
Yergin shows how, during the 20th century, oil and natural gas "toppled King Coal from his throne as the power source for the industrial world." This is, of course, an international story, but Americans like John D. Rockefeller, J. Paul Getty, and Dwight Eisenhower played a huge role. This book is an excellent starting place for understanding the importance of oil in 20th century world history.

8. Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed
This is another on the list that is more international in scope. It's about four central bankers – from the U.S., France, England, and Germany – who played key roles in shaping global economic policy in the years after the First World War. The main goal of the author is to explain the Great Depression by "looking over the shoulders of the men in charge of the four principal central banks of the world." You can read the introduction to this fine book for free by clicking here.

9. The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth
Henry V famously said, "Old men forget." This diary was an attempt to make sure that we never forget the trauma experienced by ordinary Americans during the Great Depression.

Roth was a lawyer based in Ohio during the 1920s and '30s who provides an extraordinary perspective on one of the most painful economic events in American history. After our own experience during the Great Recession, this is a particularly relevant book for contemporary readers.

10. The Battle of Bretton Woods by Benn Steil
In 1944, representatives from 44 nations gathered at Bretton Woods, N.H., in order to design a global monetary system. The American Harry Dexter White and the Englishman John Maynard Keynes were the two leading figures at the event, where the two "set out to create the economic foundations for a durable postwar global peace."

This book covers an important, overlooked story, and it has won numerous awards. A reviewer for The New York Times called it "the gold standard on its topic."

Chime in below
The above list is obviously just a tiny selection of all the great books on American economic history. We'd welcome additional suggestions in the comments section below for readers in this fascinating area.

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David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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