What is the Best History Book of 2012?


We asked our readers what, in their opinion, is the best history book of 2012. Over fifty books were nominated. These are the five leaders.

1. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro (Knopf)

The fourth volume of Robert A. Caro's bestselling and critically acclaimed multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson covers the years 1958 to 1964. The book received near universal acclaim and became one of the cultural touchstones of the year. (The author of the New York Times Sunday Book Review article on the book? One William Jefferson Clinton.)

2. Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr (Simon & Schuster)

Once viewed by contemporaries as the real center of power in the administration of Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward was subsequently eclipsed by his his boss's ascent to near-mythological status (if remembered at all throughout much of the twentieth century, it was for his push for the acquisition of Alaska, known at the time as "Seward's folly). Walter Stahr's biography recasts Seward as a shrewd wartime secretary of state who successfully kept Britain and France from intervening in the Civil War.

3. Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by James Downs (Oxford University Press)

How could the emancipation of African American slaves lead to "the greatest biological catastrophe of the nineteenth century"? The answer, argues Connecticut College professor James Downs in this ground-breaking volume, is that the mass movement of newly-freed people during and after the Civil War, coupled with horrendous living conditions and a largely, if not actively, neglectful federal government, enabled the deaths of hundreds of thousands of emancipated slaves due to infectious disease, especially smallpox.

4. Nature Next Door: Cities and Trees in the American Northeast by Ellen Stroud (University of Washington Press)

Could it be that the growth of cities actually helped preserve and even expand the forests of the American Northeast? Ellen Stroud, an environmental historian at Bryn Mawr, argues in a series of case studies centered in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine that urban necessities like clean watersheds and the preferences of urbanite tourists and cabin owners were instrumental in establishing pro-forest polices, with historical and policy implications far beyond New England and the mid-Atlantic states.

5. The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw (Penguin Press)

Investor, banker, shipbuilder, stock broker, Hollywood bigshot, alleged bootlegger turned legitimate booze baron, SEC chairman, ambassador to Britain,  isolationist leader, and, of course, patriarch to one of the most influential political families in twentieth-century America, Joseph P. Kennedy cuts an imposing figure for biographer David Nasaw. In this one-volume biography, Nasaw debunks some of the most common myths about this easily-mythologized man (there's no evidence Kennedy had any involvement in bootlegging) and isn't afraid to tackle the fundamental tragedy of his later years, from his personal political misfortunes, to his daughter's catastrophic 1941 lobotomy, and of course the tragic deaths of his three eldest sons.

Honorable Mentions: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum; The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 by Bernard Bailyn

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