Simon Schama – Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
An utterly conventional chronological narrative, focusing on major personalities more than larger cultural and economic forces. Schama writes well and vividly portrays the Revolution’s most famous moments, from the storming of the Bastille to Marat’s assassination. But overall this is a milquetoast history, lacking any major thesis or attempt at interpretation, or much personality of its own.
Some of this is for the better; Schama’s understanding of economics and public policy is clearly limited. Citizens is a good introductory text for learning the major names, dates, and factions of the Revolution. And he tells a good story. But to find out what the French Revolution means and why it deserves careful study, look elsewhere.
Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Benjamin Constant all wrote very good, and very different contemporary contributions. For a modern narrative with a broader historical and philosophical perspective, Will and Ariel Durant’s Rousseau and Revolution is much better.
Timothy Sandefur – Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man
A short biography of one of America’s foremost abolitionists, and a leading intellectual and activist of his day. It was published just in time to mark Douglass’ 200th birthday in February 1818.
Not a definitive work by any means, but Sandefur takes care to emphasize not just Douglass’ principled abolitionism and liberalism, but that Douglass was considered one of the top all-around intellectuals of his day. He had the ears of presidents, and in his case this was a good thing.
Douglass also had a sharp business acumen and became wealthy from his writing and his speeches–an example of doing well while doing a lot of good. Douglass’ long list of accomplishments grows even longer when remembering that he was born into slavery. Douglass might be famous, but he is still underappreciated. Sandefur does much to right that wrong.
Plutarch – Parallel Lives
A Roman who wrote in the first century A.D., Plutarch wrote history through biography—an approach many contemporary historians could learn from. His purpose had more to do with moral instruction rather than to tell a chronicle narrative history.
Plutarch tells his biographies mostly in pairs, typically with one Greek and one Roman, with a short comparison afterwards. For example, he compares the Greek rhetorician Demosthenes with the Roman Cicero, Alexander the Great with Julius Caesar, and the mythical Athenian founder Theseus with Romulus.
He writes of each man’s accomplishments, but also tells of their personal lives and their personal character. This makes for livelier reading, and better serves Plutarch’s intended moral purpose. He was also a proficient storyteller, with Shakespeare drawing directly from Plutarch for many of his historical plays.
Henri Pirenne – Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe
Though written before Mohammed and Charlemagne, it continues the Pirenne thesis up through the 15th century.
Trade never stopped during the medieval period, but it was geographically confined for political, military, and religious reasons. Eastern goods such as cloths and especially spices all but disappeared from Europe. The ultra-high prices merchants could command for these goods made remaining long-distance trade very lucrative.
When political and cultural change in the Near East eventually let more trade through, it quickly led to the birth of modern finance and banking—though Europe’s own cultural restrictions, such as prohibitions on usury and a popular disdain for commerce, slowed the process.
It also led to both the rise and decline of the Champagne Fairs and similar big annual events. Long distance trade went from almost nothing to enough to support large annual fairs, then finally became commonplace enough to make faraway goods available year-round in every city, making the fairs obsolete. In a weird way, both the rise and the fall of the Champagne fairs were evidence of progress.
Italy, especially Venice, and the North Sea traders from the cities comprising the Hanseatic League were some of the biggest drivers of the economic revival. It is not a coincidence that the Renaissance began around this time.
Henri Pirenne – Mohammed and Charlemagne
The Pirenne thesis is that barbarian invasions didn’t collapse the Roman Empire in 476 AD—economic isolation did, two centuries later.
Most barbarians wanted to assimilate, not destroy. They eventually became soldiers, senators, and even emperors who gave their lives fighting for the Empire, sometimes against their own former countrymen. Government and everyday life stayed pretty much the same after Romulus Augustus’ 476 overthrow.
The real change happened about two centuries later, when Arabs conquered most of the southern, eastern, and western Mediterranean. The new conquerors were uninterested in trading with the Romans, and mostly ignored them. This isolated the old Empire from existing long-distance trade.
Isolation from trade caused Europe’s economic decline, as the archaeological record shows (later historians have since confirmed this in detail). Papyrus was replaced by costlier parchment, and churches were lit by ineffective wax candles instead of oil-burning lamps. What once was open became isolated, and that’s what caused the Dark Ages.
Highly recommended, and relevant to today’s trade and immigration policy debates.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola – Oration on the Dignity of Man
This short text is informally called the manifesto of the Italian renaissance. Pico della Mirandola was a brash twenty-something when he wrote this, and more than a little bit of a pedant. But all the hallmarks of renaissance thought are there—human-centered rather than god-centered; engaged with Greek and Roman classics, previously forbidden or forgotten in the Christian world; ditto Arabic and Jewish texts; a flowery, ornate prose style; a belief in progress and perhaps even the perfectibility of man; and a general spirit of can-do audacity.
All of these were breaks with medieval tradition, and an important step on the way to Enlightenment-style modernity.
Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants
In this short 1646 pamphlet, Overton favors civil disobedience, the higher rule of law and principle over faulty man-made legislation, the separation of powers, and religious freedom. All this at a time when an absolute monarch, Charles I, held the throne. And he wrote it from prison. Overton had guts, give him that. The parallels with today’s political debates and the competing principles behind them is startling.