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Ten WRM Recommendations for Understanding History

This past week Walter Russell Mead was in D.C. for a dinner with the Alexander Hamilton Society. At the end of the meal, one attendee asked for a list of good resources for thinking well about the interplay of history and contemporary politics. In case any readers are interested, here are the suggestions WRM gave just off the top of his head (listed here in no particular order):

1. Kissinger, Henry, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22 

2. Ibid, Diplomacy

3. Churchill, Winston, A History of the English Speaking Peoples 

4. Ibid, Marlborough: His Life and Times (and Vol. 2 here)

5. Carlyle, Thomas, The French Revolution: A History 

6. Macaulay, Thomas Babington, The History of England: From the Accession of King James

7. Chernow, Ron, Washington: A Life

8. Ibid, Alexander Hamilton 

9. Hackett Fischer, David, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America

10. Ibid, Washington’s Crossing 

And of course, we at AI think no list of this kind would be complete without WRM’s own books Special Providence and Of God and Gold. The entire group is collected on an Amazon wishlist here for your purchasing or browsing convenience.

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  • Fat_Man

    Edward Gibbon’s The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

    Available in free electronic formats from:

  • Pete

    “Of god and Gold” is an extremely insightful book by Mr. Mead. I’d recommend it to everyone who wants to understand America.

  • lukelea

    What is missing from this list are resources relating to the history and politics non-Western peoples (e.g. here) and to the factor of ethnocentricity (e.g. here).

    • Corlyss

      Disagree. Western history is all that really matters. If you don’t think so, perhaps you can explain why The Rest scramble to emulate the West’s achievements, esp. its prosperity.

  • JollyGreenChemist

    I would add “The Cousins’ Wars” by Kevin Phillips. It relates how the same two factions fought each other in the English Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and the American Civil War; with the egalitarian faction defeating the aristocratic faction each time.

  • Corlyss

    I take Prof. Meade’s point, but it seems to me that history is as dependent on technological and economic developments since the first bunch decided they had to stop moving around and settle down somewhere, creating civilization almost by accident. I wish I knew two good histories that dealt comprehensively and reflectively with them. John Steele Gordon, Ron Chernow, and Niall Ferguson look at some episodes and lives, but I know of nothing that takes the mountaintop view of the whole subject.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Personal favorite History of England, David Hume. He didn’t like the English much, so he told their story w/o the myth of noble kings. Lots of good history available at manybooks free for kindle. Machiavelli’s Discourses… stands out as presenting the neglected cyclical theory of government.

  • Palinurus

    This is a terrific list, to be sure, but to my mind it has two significant omissions.

    First, it lacks any of what used to be called imaginative literature — poetry, plays, novels, those sorts of things. Literature provides a perspective and insights that cannot be captured, or at least not in such a uniquely compelling manner, by history, biography, or political theory; tragedy, comedy, and the novel limn the limits of politics, both the highs and the lows, and in particular its interactions what is below (e.g., the family) and above (e.g., the divine) the political world. The low hanging fruit here is bountiful — Shakespeare (take your pick – the Henriad, the histories, the tragedies, the Roman plays), so much of Melville, Huck Finn, the Great Gatsby, and on and on.

    Second, the list lacks any of the original documents of the American, let alone, English experience; while the listed works contain brilliant analysis, any analysis is at least once removed from the arena of politics. There is something a little risible, and perhaps condescending, in suggesting a student of the US founding should read Ron Chernow on Hamilton, instead of, say, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. The founding, and the crucial differences between the American and British constitutions, would also be illuminated by, say, Jefferson’s Summary of the Rights of British Americans (an expansive epitome of the Declaration of Independence) and Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention. And, almost as significant as Shakespeare’s absence is Lincoln’s — no Gettysburg Address, none of the Inaugural Addresses or debates with Douglas, not even the July 4, 1862 Special Address to Congress. These writings and speeches, and perhaps some later ones like FDR’s speeches on the economic royalists and the four freedoms, are crucial to understanding the mysteries, and changing nature, of our federal union.

    • Palinurus

      The list’s gravest omission, considered on its own terms, is perhaps Democracy in America.

  • Heywood Jablowme

    Who is that Ibid guy? If he’s written so many great works you’d think I’d have heard of him.

  • Greg Olsen

    Pretty similar to materials from the Brady-Johnson program in Grand Strategy.

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