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The Best Books, Movies and Podcasts to Learn About American History

Think July 4 is all about grilling, fireworks and beer? It is, mostly.


Halfway through 2016, it’s clear that American history is having a moment. In politics, Hillary Clinton hopes to become the first woman to become president of the United States. Her opposition, Donald Trump, conjures rhetoric straight from the darkest days of history; in the history of American presidential elections, no two leading candidates have been so unpopular with the American public. In legislation, gun control debates continually bring up the Second Amendment and its contemporary interpretation. On our currency, historical figures of the Civil Rights movement will replace slaveholding presidents, most notably on the twenty-dollar bill. Alexander Hamilton’s spot on the ten-dollar bill was saved by the popularity of the musical Hamilton, a hip-hop interpretation of a founding father that dominated the Tony awards and has entered the national consciousness in such a way that you won’t be able to get tickets — everyone, including your grandmother, is asking for them.

But fear not. The year 1776 — when the Declaration of Independence was signed — was only a short 240 years ago. So chipping away at understanding what’s shaped this country in those in-between years is both an admirable ambition, and a pretty reasonable one. To give you some historical context on July 4th, and to help you add some context to those heated political discussions on the horizon in November, we’ve compiled the best books, movies, podcasts and documentaries about America’s past.


David McCullough

In the world of historians, there’s no bigger name than David McCullough. You may have seen his books on your grandfather’s bookshelves, and while they look daunting, McCullough is known for the opposite. His books don’t push the reader away with dates and documents. They pull the reader in with narrative and characters. In this book McCullough brings you on the ground with a group of soldiers marching behind George Washington into battle, with the future of a country they believed riding on their success. $12


John Adams

Instead of reading two McCullough books in a row, watch this HBO mini-series based on his book of the same title. Paul Giamotti stars as John Adams, the first vice president and second president, who leads the founding fathers through the last days of the Revolution and the early days of our fledgling nation. Watch Now


Undaunted Courage
Stephen Ambrose

Go west, young man. While he didn’t use those words, that was more or less the instruction from Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis. He abided. What followed was one of the greatest adventures in American history, and Ambrose tells the tale with passion and fervor. $11


Steve Inskeep

You’ve definitely heard of president Andrew Jackson, but a contemporary of his and fellow great American leader, Cherokee chief John Ross, is less well known. The two faced off when the country was at a crossroads. Jackson and the US Government ignored Ross’s attempts to engage in the legal process, and the Trail of Tears followed. $20


Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Dee Brown

Like Jacksonland, it’s important to remove your rose-tinted history glasses for this one. Dee Brown tells the tale of the abuse of Native Americans by the American government, and he tells it from the Native American perspective. It’s a powerful message about a tragic and important story that ends with an unforgettable massacre. $12


Team of Rivals
Doris Kearns Goodwin

The man that graces the pennies in your pocket with his top-hatted profile was no dunce. Goodwin knows her stuff, too, as well as how to tell a story. She tells the story of Abraham Lincoln and his campaign to preserve the Union. The fight was no act of simplistic righteousness — it was a complicated war full of political calculations by a team of advisors assembled by Honest Abe. $14


The Civil War
Ken Burns

PBS aired this Ken Burns documentary in 1990 as a miniseries, but there isn’t much that’s mini about this 11-hour-and-20-minute, comprehensive survey of the American Civil War. If you have time to watch it, you’re bound to learn everything you could want and more about the the deadliest war in American history. $38


The Guns of August
Barbara Tuchman

World War I marked the end of the Gilded Age. Generals no longer marched into battle, feather in their hat and dawning felt robes. War was no longer a romantic event. Nonetheless, American boys signed themselves up, saying they were 18 even though they were 16, and marched into one of the deadliest conflicts in world history. Tuchman pieces together the first month of the war and untangles how it began, bringing the many-charactered story to life. $6


A Bridge Too Far
Cornelius Ryan

The D-Day scene from Saving Private Ryan is, for a lot of folks, a first exposure to the true bloodiness of World War II. A Bridge Too Far recounts the Battle of Arnhem, a conflict that cost the Allies more than twice as many lives as the storming of Utah Beach. It was a full-throttle effort to end the war, and it ended in bitter defeat. Ryan shares the event with all the intensity and horror that can be packed into 672 pages. $13


No Ordinary Time
Doris Kearns Goodwin

America as we know it today was, in many ways, born during the FDR presidency. Goodwin shares a vivid depiction of the most important stories of the time, both intimate and global. $14


From Jim Crow to Civil Rights
Michael J. Klarman

This hefty 672-pager examines the implications and effects of two of the biggest Supreme Court cases of the 20th century. While Klarman’s analysis is controversial and bold, it offers an in-depth review of one of the most important times in recent history. $17


All the President’s Men
Alan J. Pakula

If history still bores you, this might be a good way of sinking your teeth into it. The film stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, was written by William Goldman of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride fame, and tells the thrilling story of two investigative journalists chasing down the facts behind the biggest case of corruption in history. $13


Ken Burns

While this doesn’t cover a specific event or time, you could argue that it covers something more important. Not just because baseball is America’s pastime, but because Burns uses it as a needle to thread together over a century of US history. As long as you don’t get sick of the soundtrack (mostly different versions of Take Me Out to the Ballgame), Baseball will keep you fairly entertained while elevating your history game. $38


We Were Soldiers Once… and Young
Harold G. Moore & Joseph Galloway

The best introduction to this account of the Vietnam War is that which the author provides. Here are the prologue’s first few lines: “This story is about time and memories. The time was 1965, a different kind of year, a watershed year when one era was ending in America and another was beginning. We felt it then, in the many ways our lives changed so suddenly, so dramatically, and looking back on it from a quarter-century gone we are left in no doubt… It was the year we went to war. In the broad, traditional sense, that ‘we’ who went to war was all of us, all Americans, though in truth at that time the larger majority had little knowledge, less interest and no great concern with what was beginning so far away.” $7


Hardcore History
Dan Carlin

As advertised, Carlin doesn’t tell history like anyone else. He’s highly opinionated, has a biting sense of humor and doesn’t have a specific political leaning. His coverage of American history is passionate and thorough, and he’s consistently atop the iTunes podcast charts. We recommend the “Blueprint for Armageddon” for a first listen — but be warned, each episode is about three hours long. Free


The History of American Slavery
Slate Academy

While this podcast series from Slate requires your paid subscription, it’s worth the small fee. The hosts tell the complex, fascinating and terrible story of American slavery through specific accounts and overarching themes. They don’t shy away from hard-hitting story lines and facts that shed new light on a history often oversimplified. Learn More


Stuff You Missed in History Class
Tracy Wilson & Holly Frey

Tracy and Holly aren’t your history teacher. In fact, they want to talk specifically about things that your history teacher didn’t. They keep their conversations casual while still being informative, and have hundreds of shows already under their belts, so get listening if you want to catch up. To start, we recommend the two-part episode on Ethan Allen, who was a farmer and patriot leader during the revolution, as well as one of the founders of the great state of Vermont. Free

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