What books and papers literally turned history around?

Debating the effects  of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring got me wondering about the true influence of that book.  That quickly turned into wondering about the true influence of other writings, books and papers that might be credited with having turned around history in a given field, or in the United States (I’m focusing on U.S. history this year since that’s what I’m teaching).

What books and writings — not events, not inventions — literally changed U.S. history?

I have a quick list, not in chronological order, nor any other order, really:

  1. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
  2. Common Sense,” Tom Paine’s broadside
  3. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations
  4. Federalist Papers and Antifederalist Papers
  5. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriett Beecher Stowe
  6. Das Kapital, by Karl Marx
  7. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
  8. Perhaps The Bible, at least after 1880 during the rise of fundamentalism
  9. Einstein’s five papers in 1905 (which led to a cascade of events to nuclear weapons, and more)
  10. John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory on Employment, Interest and Money (or would his Treatise on Money be the one to look at?)
  11. Ludwig von Mises (which writing?)
  12. Crick’s and Watson’s paper on DNA in 1953
  13. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
  14. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” in the way it recast the Declaration of Independence

What about Profiles in Courage? Did it have so much influence?  Any influence at all?

I didn’t include Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I wonder if it should be there.  I regard it as the novel in which America came of age, when Huck decides he’ll go ahead and burn in hell by not turning Jim in as an escaped slave, because Jim is a man and a good friend.  (I don’t think a discussion of the validity of Huck’s religious beliefs gets at the issue here, where he does what is right assuming bad consequences, but maybe that’s a greater influence later on.)

Oh, surely I’ve overlooked some very important contribution by someone.  De Tocqueville perhaps?  Were there other books that were greatly influential in their time, that we now generally don’t consider?  Ida Tarbell’s work, perhaps?  Did Edwin Hubble have a fundamental publication we can point to?  How about Alpher, Herman and Gamow and Big Bang?

A follow-on question might be music, plays and movies that had similar results —  not sure of any that qualify, though I wonder about the influence of “Show Boat” in the campaign for desegregation and civil rights, and I wonder about the influence of “Our Town” on our view of civic government and small town life especially given that so many thousands of people participated in local and school productions of the thing over the years.  “Hair!?”

I’m looking for sources to use to provide genuine light to a high school student in U.S. history.  Some of these sources we touch on, but others are completely ignored in all current U.S. history texts for public schools.

What do you think?


27 Responses to What books and papers literally turned history around?

  1. Bryan says:

    I expect you’ll have people arguing that Atlas Shrugged was a positive (in part) influence and that Silent Spring was the opposite (but not from me). You might consider approaching it like the Time Person of the Year and rely on the absolute impact (negative or positive).


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    I’m wondering increasingly about listing books that had a negative effect on U.S. history, too — like, perhaps, Atlas Shrugged. It’s the book that caused the Economic Meltdown of 2008 after all, isn’t it? Here’s a justification:

    Tip to denialism blog:


  3. Bryan says:

    Considering the BoM strictly in terms of literature (with no intent to be disrespectful to LDS), the “creation” (for lack of a better word) of the BoM led to a migration from NY to IL and MO and ultimately to the founding of UT and its statehood. It was directly responsible for the creation and success, for at least a few decades, of a polygamous society in the US. Along the way, it divinely inspired its adherents, as well as inspired riots and revolts within and without. If it weren’t for the BoM, what would Utah territory have become?

    While I expect there have been at least a few US citizens who claimed to be prophets, I don’t think any hold a candle the legacy that Joseph Smith created, including over a million followers in the US alone and the majority population of an entire state.

    Over 1 million US citizens believe that Jesus visited the continent after his resurrection. These people also believe that a civilization existed on this continent with a population of millions and a huge battle was fought in NY.

    All this happened within a century. It’s all documented, and it can all be traced back to Joseph Smith and the BoM. We see that legacy today with the trials of the FLDS.

    FYI, I’m not LDS. But I am fascinated by the history of the LDS.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Bryan, I’m probably too close to the Mormon phenomena; help me see the significance of the LDS religious documents in U.S. history.

    Mormons believe in divine inspiration for U.S. founding documents — is there anything beyond that?


  5. JimV says:

    Did I miss a mention of Newton’s “Principia Mathematica”? If so, I got nothing.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Paul, I wouldn’t include Mein Kampf because it wasn’t very influential, even among Nazis, and it’s not much of a text in U.S. history.

    Especially I wouldn’t include it, no matter how fond of it you may be, because it’s exactly contrary to Rachel Carson’s viewpoint.

    Your version of history is missing a few facts. Might I suggest you start with a few readings?

    1. “The War against Rachel Carson still rages . . .”
    2. “Bated breath, bated brains . . .”
    3. “Rebutting junk science . . . #6 . . .”
    4. “$36 million to clean up DDT mess”
    5. “History, May 15, 1963: President’s council vindicates Rachel Carson . . .”
    6. “Alma Conference on DDT and human health calls for DDT phase out”
    7. “DDT ain’t pixie dust: We can’t poison Africa to health”

    And otherwise, just go to the “search” box on the right side of this page, and type in “DDT” or “Rachel Carson.” You’ll get out of any one of those posts more good information than you have now.

    DDT is a deadly poison. Especially, it kills insects and animals, and especially it kills beneficial insects and animals. Rachel Carson, however, called for DDT to be kept for use to kill mosquitoes that carry malaria, by reducing DDT’s use so that it would be kept effective against mosquitoes.

    That was 1962. Big Business agriculture and others abused DDT in Africa and other places, and by 1965 mosquitoes were resistant and immune to DDT in Africa, and many other places. DDT use wasn’t stopped because it was banned by environmentalists — and DDT has never been banned in any African nation. DDT use was stopped because its overuse meant it wasn’t working anymore.

    Now, why in the world would you blame Rachel Carson, when her integrated pest management methods today are used to clean up the malaria mess left by overuse of DDT?

    You don’t understand the chemistry, the biology, the economics, nor the politics, of malaria eradication. Rachel Carson’s methods, applied today, save millions of lives.

    I hope you don’t handle firearms with that philosophy of yours. If you grab a gun by the barrel and keep it pointed at yourself, you’re liable to get injured.

    You’d probably know that, had you read Silent Spring. It’s not too late.


  7. Paul says:

    If you are going to include Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, you should also include Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. After all, Carson’s body count is higher than Hitler’s and is still on going today.

    Carson’s lies and distortions about DDT have killed tens of millions of African women and children and continue to kill 1-2 million every year. Because she is the patron saint of the Green religion, true believers are unwilling to admit the magnitude of the misery and death she has brought to the world; they place honoring her memory above the lives of ongoing victims of malaria.

    Some people will argue that she was just wrong and not evil; while Hitler’s views on race were evil as well as being wrong. Some say her motive “saving the birds” was more honorable than Hitler’s “bringing socialism to the world”.

    Others might argue that she can’t be held responsible for the actions of misguided fanatics who took up her cause, ie Watermelons (Green on the outside, Red on the inside) using NGO’s to lobby the UN and aid donor countries to deny aid to African countries which employ DDT to control malaria. That it is the modern day Watermelons who are responsible for killing all these African women and children.

    Personally, I don’t find this argument persuasive. Just as Rachel Carson never killed any African women and children, Adolf Hitler never killed anyone either. Rather it is their ability to persuade others to act that is at issue here.

    Rather than get into motivation, it is easier to compare body counts ie. how many died as a result of the views they promoted. Hitler body count is probably around 50 million. On the other hand if we attribute 1-2 million malaria deaths per year to Rachel Carson stating in the mid 1970’s, Carson’s body count is between 33 and 66 million. This measure ignores the hundreds of millions afflicted with malaria who do not die but suffer its debilitating effects.

    Thus it is not conclusive; however, I would give Carson the nod because her count is still increasing by 1-2 million per year.

    Green’s seem incapable even today of admitting that her claims in Silent Spring are just made up nonsense. No matter how much DDT was fed to birds, they wouldn’t die. As for her claim of DDT causing cancer in children, it was a brilliant stroke. So difficult to disprove and so effective in spreading fear. Better to be safe, where’s the harm in banning a chemical. The tens of millions of Africans who died of malaria would have died of something else anyway.

    It is true that decades of research has proven that DDT will decrease the strength of the egg shell of certain species of birds reducing their survival rate from 85% to 75%. On the other hand, spraying DDT on a marsh leads to tremendous increases in the bird population as the insects which spread disease among the birds are killed.


  8. Bryan says:

    Reading the comments inspired a few more:
    Jessica Mitford – The American Way of Death
    Ralph Nader – Unsafe at Any Speed
    Dalton Trumbo – Johnny Got His Gun


  9. Nick Kelsier says:

    Nellie Bly’s article on, I believe, the practices of mental institutions in her time.


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    Sure. Alaska, Hawaii, territories, Texas . . .

    I was looking for literature and popular culture, not legislation or court decisions, which are rather well covered, I think.

    But the Pentagon Papers, to pick an example, surely changed the way we looked at the war, and war in general. Very few people read the stuff, instead relying on news reports about what was in them.

    So the criteria aren’t firm, either, other than I need stuff to be material affecting the U.S., and after 1877 is better than before 1877 — but as you can see, I’m not holding that as firm cutoff.


  11. mpb says:

    Are Alaska and current US states prior to 1860 count as US?


  12. Ed Darrell says:

    For me, I’m just looking for turning points in U.S. history. Let the world history teachers look out for themselves for a couple of months.


  13. Nick Kelsier says:

    We keeping it to texts that changed US history or branching it out?


  14. Mr. B says:

    If you’re going for any Thoreau, go for “Resistance to Civil Government” (commonly referred to as “Civil Disobedience”). King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” goes hand in hand with that one, as King and Gandhi explicitly gave Thoreau credit as a source of inspiration for their individual movements (although Thoreau was not solely responsible: King also drew from Augustine and other theologians, and Gandhi from the idea of satyagraha).

    How about The Crisis and Common Sense from Paine? I know that I can’t help thinking of history being turned around in America by the line “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

    There are surely others, although this is a great list so far.


  15. mpb says:

    Veniaminov’s pamphlet was in Aleut. He is still (despite SP) the most famous Alaskan.

    Our Lady of Guadalupe – Wikipedia There’s a Texas anthropologist who wrote better on the biocultural significance of the RC acceptance, but can’t place the name at the moment.


  16. mpb says:

    Some of these suggestions certainly reflect what is thought NOW to be significant, but what about then? For example, Letter from Birmingham Jail might be more significant than I have a Dream in its coeval context.

    The Moravians would argue that Luther was a johnny-come-lately ;) 550th Anniversary of the Moravian Church, 2007 March 1

    The appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe and its subsequent acceptance by the RC Church has been argued as having saved millions of lives and provided a fundamental and radical approach to relations between Americans and Europeans.

    Another significant example would be Ioann Veniaminov’s (St Innocent) essay, • The Indication of the Pathway into the Kingdom of Heaven by St. Innocent (Veniaminov) – published 1840, 1899


  17. Tony Hoffman says:

    I love these kinds of posts.

    You said papers, so I’d add George Kennan’s “Article X” casting the Soviet Union as an old rival in new clothes.


  18. John Moeller says:

    Luther’s 95 theses.
    Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.


  19. Bryan says:

    Joseph Smith – The Book of Mormon, as well as other Mormon books and documents that I’m only familiar with by name (e.g., Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine & Convenants)


  20. Bryan says:

    it’s = its


  21. Bryan says:

    I considered Thoreau but couldn’t come up with a definitive turning point in history tied to Walden but that could just be due ignorance on my part. It was certainly influential. I considered On the Road as well, for it’s influence on 60s culture, but again, a diffuse impact rather than abrupt.


  22. Ed Darrell says:

    What about Thoreau’s On Walden Pond?


  23. Great post. A few others to consider:

    –Northwest Ordinance
    –Homestead Act
    –Act Establishing Yellowstone National Park
    –Social Security Act
    –Brown v. Board of Education


  24. Nick Kelsier says:

    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr I have a Dream speech.


  25. Bryan says:

    Milton Friedman – A Monetary History of the United States
    Mohandas Gandhi – The Story of My Experiments with Truth
    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail
    United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense (a/k/a The Pentagon Papers)
    Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (a/k/a The Church Committee Report)


  26. Nick Kelsier says:

    I’d add the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta to it. And the Gayanashagowa.


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