Top Ten Books on Government and Politics: Recommendations by Historian Jack Roper

booksThe other day, SCPC friend and historian Jack Roper and I began to discuss “must reads,” and I challenged Jack to list his ten “must reads” on government and politics. He graciously suggested the following titles, and provided a brief comment on each. We hope that this will be the first of a number of these lists suggested by other friends. I may even venture a list at some point.

Enjoy!                                     Herb Hartsook


Roper

Dr. Jack Roper

Dr. Roper writes:

I got hung up between classics that affect how I think and do research, and works that really affect my specific understanding of process. So I mixed the two kinds of things up. Omissions that are important for you to know: I initially listed Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction; Tindall, Disruption of the Solid South; and Blum, The Republican Roosevelt, but reluctantly left them as nos. 11, 12, and 13.

There is one dog that doesn’t bark: As great as Merrill Peterson and other authorities are, no one has written a book that captures Jefferson’s genius in building the Democratic Republican party, the way he found regional and subregional leaders in Virginia and New York, but also the backcountry. We need such a book.

Here is a list, in cardinal order:

1. Aristotle, Ars Politica, trans. Jowett. There is wisdom in Aristotle about all things, and especially the political. I review what he sees as principles and watch for them in actors.

2. Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. and ed. Constantine. Machiavelli is denser and more complicated than many think; I especially like the way he understands that there are serious limits to what anyone can do as leader no matter the system. I find many of his examples of how people will react to actions to be especially good. I remember that the Founding Fathers and Lincoln all regarded Machiavelli as extremely important.

3. John Caldwell Calhoun, Collected Works, ed. Wilson (primarily on concurrent majorities). He is certainly wrong on slavery and race, but his description of concurrent majorities is a wonderful way to understand how power blocs work in our federalist system.

4. James Madison with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, The Federalist Papers. Ed. Bosch and Smith (University of Wisconsin) I think it is useful to see what Madison in particular thought the republic would be all about. Obviously I read this in dialogue and dialectic with Calhoun.

5. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Hobbes has ripe observations about motivation and insights into how people act, with or without power. Like Machiavelli, he understands the limits of power even and especially for the Leviathan. The way our Commander in Chief Leviathans are often hamstrung is already forecast there in Hobbes’s work.

6. Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy. Although there is some cheer-leading, Sorensen really details Kennedy’s actions while Senator and President and accurately reveals a Liberal’s thinking in another era. In particular, he reminds us how limited was Kennedy’s vision on civil rights despite the soaring rhetoric.

7. James McGregor Burns, Roosevelt, 2 volumes (especially The Lion and the Fox). I think Burns, using Machiavelli’s template on the lion and the fox, does a great job showing how our most successful president got things done, whether admirable or not.

8. Gordon S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic. Such a careful and close reading of the thinking of the Founding Fathers, with a deft transition from the fervor of radical revolution to the checks and balances and judicious governance of the Constitution.

9. William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War. South Carolina starts the War, and the start of the start is the crisis with Nullification. An excellent study of the men and the forces who could not be reasoned with—and a reminder of how badly Calhoun wanted to prevent disunion.

10. Robert Caro, Lyndon Johnson, 3 volumes. Caro does not understand Texas and does not try very hard to understand it, but he surely follows LBJ as he makes his remarkable climb to power. It’s a corking narrative and with a clear moral vision concerning a great man with a tragic flaw.

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