Book Breaks

Gilder Lehrman Book Breaks features the most exciting history scholars in America discussing their books live with host William Roka, followed by a Q&A with home audiences.

Every Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.

Student Question Submission Competition

Middle and high school students (age 13 and up), submit your questions for one of the historians being featured on Book Breaks. If your question is chosen, it will be announced live on the program and in recognition you and your teacher will each win a $50 gift certificate to the Gilder Lehrman Gift Shop! Your question can be about the book or the topic in general. Please, only one submission per program.

Submit your question here.

Deadline to submit a question for the upcoming Book Breaks session is Thursday.

Upcoming Book Breaks


January 24, 2021 - James Oakes discusses his book The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

The long and turning path to the abolition of American slavery has often been attributed to the equivocations and inconsistencies of antislavery leaders, including Lincoln himself. But James Oakes’s history of Lincoln’s antislavery strategies reveals a striking consistency and commitment extending over many years. The linchpin of antislavery for Lincoln was the Constitution of the United States. With this understanding, Lincoln and his antislavery allies used every tool available to undermine the institution. Wherever the Constitution empowered direct federal action—in the western territories, in the District of Columbia, over the slave trade—they intervened.

President Lincoln took full advantage of the antislavery options opened by the Civil War. Enslaved people who escaped to Union lines were declared free. The Emancipation Proclamation, a military order of the president, undermined slavery across the South. It led to abolition by six slave states, which then joined the coalition to effect what Lincoln called the “King’s cure”: state ratification of the constitutional amendment that in 1865 finally abolished slavery.

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James Oakes is one of the foremost Civil War historians and a two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize for his works on the politics of abolition. He teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Order The Crooked Path to Abolition at the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s Book Shop.


January 31, 2021 - Mary Beth Norton discusses her book 1774: The Long Year of Revolution

The culmination of more than four decades of research and thought, Mary Beth Norton looks at the sixteen months leading up to the clashes at Lexington and Concord in mid-April 1775. This was the critical, and often overlooked, period when colonists traditionally loyal to King George III began the discordant “discussions” that led them to their acceptance of the inevitability of war against the British Empire.

Drawing extensively on pamphlets, newspapers, and personal correspondence, Norton reconstructs colonial political discourse as it took place throughout 1774 and recounts the series of violent incidents that began in December 1773 with the event later known as the “Boston Tea Party.” Late in 1774, conservatives mounted a vigorous campaign criticizing the First Continental Congress. But by then it was too late. In early 1775, colonial governors informed officials in London that they were unable to thwart the increasing power of local committees and their allied provincial congresses. Although the Declaration of Independence would not be formally adopted until July 1776, even before the outbreak of war in April 1775 Americans had in effect “declared independence.”

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Mary Beth Norton is the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History Emerita at Cornell University, where she taught from 1971 to 2018. In 2005–2006, she was Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge. She has written six books about Early American history, including Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800 and In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692.

Order 1774 at the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s Book Shop.

Last Week’s Book Breaks

January 17, 2021 - Victoria Phillips discussed her book Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy

Order Martha Graham's Cold War at the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s Book Shop.

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Gilder Lehrman Institute Education Coordinator William RokaDiscussion moderator William Roka is an independent researcher focusing on the history of travel and ocean liners in the early twentieth century. He has presented at conferences in the UK, Argentina, Australia, and across the US. He was the historian and public programs manager at the South Street Seaport Museum from 2016 to 2018, and curated the exhibition Millions: Migrants and Millionaires aboard the Great Liners, 1900–1914. His paper on ocean liners and travel in the early twentieth century was published in the inaugural edition of the Yearbook of Transnational History in 2018. He currently is an education coordinator for the Hamilton Education Program at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He studied history at University College London and international relations at King’s College London.