Books have long been able to influence minds. A well thought out and written book can inspire a cause or expose injustice. These books can often transform history. Here are four of the most influential books in American history.
Book #1: Common Sense by Thomas Paine(1776)
Before 1776, the notion of independence was very radical. The predominant goal then was one of reconciliation with the British. This book(or more accurately, this pamphlet) changed that. Common Sense is the best selling book per capita in American history. As a result, it moved independence into the American mainstream. There is a case to be made that America never would have made that jump if not for Paine’s words.
Book #2: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
We move on to a book whose influence only came after the author’s death. Mary Wollstonecraft died very young at 38, after giving birth to her daughter. Her daughter, Mary Shelley, would gain far more fame than her as the author of Frankenstein.
This book was the first feminist book in American history. She argues that men and women only appeared to be unequal due to education differences. As a result, she argued for women to be educated the same way as men. She would gain much more influence during the feminist movement of the 20th century.
Book #3: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe(1852)
In 1850s America, the political landscape was fraying. The debate over the expansion of slavery was coming to a head. The Compromise of 1850 had only angered both sides. This mess was not helped by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. This would lead to violence in a period known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
I tell you this information as a backdrop for this book. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852. While fictional, it served a major role in exposing the cruelty of slavery to the North. Before the book, slavery was largely an economic issue. Uncle Tom’s Cabin condemned slavery based on purely moral and Christian principles. It would be a major part of the cauldron of chaos that lead to the Civil War.
Book #4: How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis(1890)
Conditions for the poor during the Gilded Age were truly horrific. The largely immigrant working classes were living in extreme poverty. Jacob Riis made it a goal to expose these conditions to the politicians and the country. Through this book, he showed the plight of workers in New York City. His work utilized the new technology of flash photography to make this happen.
Ultimately, it caught the attention of the New York state government. It inspired urban housing reforms across the country. His book was also one of the first examples of muckraking in American history. Today we know this as investigative journalism.
The written word has cast a long shadow over American history. Books have been a driving force behind pushes for change throughout history. Books have served an important role in spreading ideas and sparking debates. Books have also served as challengers of immoral ideas. Have you read any of the books on this list? What is your favorite book that shaped history?