Though today’s Congress seems combative, all the filibusters and name-calling are nothing compared to when Congressmen actually stabbed and shot one another. From the infamous caning of Charles Sumner to endless challenges to duel, as historian Joanne Freeman shows in The Field of Blood (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $28), these frayed tensions were practically destined to erupt into the Civil War. Remembering the Congress of the past solely as hallowed halls and dignified men, she argues, is dangerous, as the real history reveals uncomfortable yet necessary truths about a nation on the brink of disunion. Written with wit, flair, and a hint of cheek, Freeman presents these Congressmen as petty, triumphant, stoic, and vengeful—or, as she puts it more simply, human.
It is hard to find anyone who does not like a good pirate yarn, at least in some form. Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates (Liveright, $29.95) scratches that itch for fans of American history. Eric Jay Dolin takes a look at the history of piracy and its relation to the American colonies, from the good times, when colonists benefited from trade with the pirates, to the bad times when pirates turned their sights on the colonies and states themselves. Black Flags Blue Waters benefits from an immense amount of research, and the concise but eloquent prose for which Dolin, also the author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire, is known. If you love American history, maritime history, or anything to do with pirates, this might just be the book for you.
One of the illuminating and sobering tasks that an historian can perform for a society is to look back at what was intended by, say, a nation’s founding fathers and compare that to what ended up happening over the years. Michael Beschloss does this expertly and sweepingly in Presidents of War (Crown, $35), which looks at how, despite a Constitution intended to make it difficult for a president to lead America into war—indeed, the sole power to declare war was given to Congress—presidents have gotten us embroiled in wars roughly once in every generation. Beschloss’s landmark book examines the experiences of eight presidents from the War of 1812 through the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. It also includes an early chapter on the skillful efforts of a ninth president, Thomas Jefferson, who kept the United States out of war.