WE the people . . .
So begins the Preamble to the United States Constitution, and on the eve of Independence Day, we think it’s worth remembering that, more than anything else, it is the people — the hearts, hands, and voices of heroes and ordinary citizens alike — that have made America into a great nation.
To honor them this Fourth of July, here are seven books celebrating individuals who have played noteworthy roles in the shaping of our nation and its freedoms.
For Younger Readers
Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation
Written by Pat Sherman
Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Ben, a young slave, uses every chance he gets to teach himself to read, practicing with the words he sees on street signs and in shop windows and even in cast-off newspapers he finds in the gutter. But after the Civil War breaks out, his master leaves town and Ben finds himself in a slave prison. One night, the prisoners bribe a guard to get their hands on a newspaper, and to the applause of his fellow slaves, Ben reads aloud the momentous news of Mr. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — surely one of the most remarkable readings of that document ever.
Based on the true story of Benjamin Holmes, Pat Sherman’s stirring text and the memorable illustrations of Coretta Scott King medalist Floyd Cooper pay tribute to the power of freedom — and to the power of the written word.
The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights
Written by Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Tim Ladwig
Since the earliest days of slavery, African Americans have called on their religious faith in the struggle against oppression. In this book the Beatitudes — from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount — form the backdrop for Carole Boston Weatherford’s powerful free-verse poem that traces the African American journey from slavery to civil rights.
Tim Ladwig’s stirring illustrations showcase a panorama of heroes in this struggle, from the slaves shackled in the hold of a ship to the first African American president taking his oath of office on the steps of the United States Capitol.
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Attack of the Turtle
It’s 1776, and the Revolutionary War is raging. Fourteen-year-old Nathan Wade is a patriot, but he’s too young to join the fight. Then his cousin David Bushnell comes to town with a secret. David has designed a water machine that can explode bombs underwater. And his mission is to launch it against the British warships in New York harbor.
Nate reluctantly agrees to help David build the weapon of war — dubbed the American Turtle. Although he’s terrified of water and worried about getting caught, when unlikely circumstances put Nate at the center of the action, he must face the murky waters of his fears head-on.
Based on actual historical events, this adventure story captures the drama of the first submarine used in naval warfare and the struggles of a teenager overcoming self-doubt.
For Older Readers
Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
Allen C. Guelzo
An enlightening “intellectual biography” of Lincoln, Allen Guelzo’s peerless account of America’s most celebrated president explores the role of ideas in Lincoln’s life, treating him as a serious thinker deeply involved in the nineteenth-century debates over politics, religion, and culture. Written with passion and dramatic impact, Guelzo’s masterful study offers a revealing new perspective on a man whose life was in many ways a paradox.
Since its original publication in 1999, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President has garnered numerous accolades, not least the prestigious 2000 Lincoln Prize. As journalist Richard N. Ostling has noted, “Much has been written about Lincoln’s belief and disbelief,” but Guelzo’s extraordinary account “goes deeper.”
Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson
Edwin S. Gaustad
This acclaimed biography explores the religious life of Thomas Jefferson and the contribution his strident commitment to religious liberty made to the formation of the nation. Renowned historian Edwin Gaustad chronicles Jefferson’s intellectual growth, paying particular attention both to Jefferson’s private struggle to come to grips with his own faith and to his public role as champion of religious liberty.
“Splendid work. . . Gaustad is respected among American historians for various reasons, not the least of which is his almost uncanny ability to step inside the framework of those about whom he writes. Reading Gaustad’s work on Jefferson is like taking a journey inside the head and heart of one of our country’s most complex and fruitful thinkers.”
— Journal of Church and State
Friends of Liberty
Editor’s note: Although (unlike the rest of the books on this list) this historical novel is entirely fictional, given its subject matter, we can’t resist the opportunity to include it here today.
The year is 1773; Boston is in political turmoil. As tension rises between England and the colonies, lines are being drawn between the Loyalists and the Patriots. And Sally Gifford, a shoemaker’s daughter, finds herself on the opposite side from her best friend Kitty Lawton, the daughter of a wealthy merchant.
Sally is torn between her cherished friendship and her loyalties to her own family and community in their fight for freedom. As the conflict continues to grow more charged in the weeks leading up to the Boston Tea Party, Sally finds within herself a bravery she didn’t know she had, and ultimately takes a stand for what she comes to find is most important.
Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life
So you’re the little woman who started this big war, Abraham Lincoln is said to have quipped when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin converted readers by the thousands to the anti-slavery movement and served notice that slavery’s days were numbered. Overnight Stowe became a celebrity, but to defenders of slavery she was the devil in petticoats.
Most writing about Stowe treats her as a literary figure and social reformer while underplaying her Christian faith. But Nancy Koester’s biography treats Stowe’s faith as central to her life — both her public fight against slavery and her own struggle through deep personal grief to find a gracious God.
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