NOW LET’S JUMP to readable books that focus on specific historical episodes while avoiding pedantry. Publishing houses, like other media outlets, have dueling worldviews. Regnery, the Fox News of publishing, has a conservative perspective. Some of its books, like Dean Reuter’s The Hidden Nazi (2019), are poorly written, but others, like After the Fall: The Remarkable Comeback of Richard Nixon by Kasey Pipes (2019), move well.
Regnery, like Fox, relishes stories with a sexual background like Star Spangled Scandal: Sex, Murder, and the Trial That Changed America (2019). Author Chris DeRose focuses on the trial of Congressman Dan Sickles, who found his wife committing adultery with the son of national anthem writer Francis Scott Key. Regnery is willing to poke at the pantheon of liberal presidents: Lew Paper’s In the Cauldron: Terror, Tension, and the American Ambassador’s Struggle to Avoid Pearl Harbor, scheduled for Nov. 5 publication, contends that war with Japan was not necessary.
Regnery rightly honors the largely forgotten: Clint Johnson’s Tin Cans & Greyhounds (2019) tells how sailors on the fast escort and attack ships known as destroyers risked death by water and fire—cannons, bombs, torpedoes—as they took on giant battleships during World Wars I and II. John M. Pafford’s The Accidental President (2019) tells more about Chester Arthur than most readers would find interesting—but Arthur did show courage in vetoing the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Regnery books are often action-oriented, and Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy (2012) is an excellent example of the genre. Author Ronald Utt narrates heroic action without covering up mistakes and sins. He points out the incompetence of President James Madison that led to the British army’s capture of Washington and its burning of the Capitol and other public buildings.
Books from Encounter, the publisher of McClay’s Land of Hope, tend to emphasize ideas over action. Greg Weiner’s Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln & the Politics of Prudence (2019) shows that “prudence” is not timid or fearful: It represents “a moral commitment to the limits of individual reason.” Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln both had the good judgment to distinguish between ordinary moments and genuine crises: The former demands patience and flexibility, the latter “bold action and unbending tenacity.”
Sentinel, the publisher of A Patriot’s History, also put out Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s Our Lost Declaration (2019), another lively answer to Howard Zinn. Lee obviously loves the Declaration of Independence but does not pretend that all its signers, including its primary author, were saints. Although Thomas Jefferson’s rhetorical opposition to slavery did not survive the editing process, Lee is still depressed that “Jefferson could write about the equal rights of man while his fellow human beings—wholly owned by himself and his family—worked without pay back at Monticello. Think what a shining example Jefferson might have set had he freed his slaves.”
Now let’s move to the liberal (and much bigger) publishing world. Basic Books publishes some good books, such as its recent looks at two chief justices. Richard Brookhiser’s John Marshall (2018) shows how the Supreme Court went from a backwater to a raging torrent, and Joan Biskupic’s The Chief (2019) illuminates John Roberts’ desire to depoliticize the court and have the Supremes sing more melodically. Douglas Egerton’s Heirs of an Honored Name (2019) shows what happened to the descendants of John and John Quincy Adams. But Basic puts out many books like Darren Dochuk’s Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (2019), a 672-page critique of fundamentalists and Big Oil that could be supplementary reading in a Zinn course.
St. Martin’s Press, part of Macmillan, also leans leftward. Jack Kelly’s The Edge of Anarchy (2019), a liberal history of the 1894 Pullman strike and its aftermath, may gain some readers—but they won’t learn much. Bradley Hart’s Hitler’s American Friends (2018) is better, showing how some senators, business executives, and others shamefully worked alongside the Bund and the Silver Legion. The MSNBC of publishing is Bold Type Books: That’s the new name for Nation Books. Recent titles include The Case Against Free Speech, War Against All Puerto Ricans, and Ask Me About My Uterus, but I couldn’t find Bold Type history books worth recommending.