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The first and still one of the greatest political histories ever written is Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, in which we find many of the themes that continue to fascinate students of politics. I shall begin by examining the development of international political history from Thucydides to the present. Another important subject of political history, also with classical roots, is the development of law and institutions. Here I will be especially concerned with the significance of legal history for the development of modern historiography. In the nineteenth century, political history became closely associated with the nation-state, whose story was at once the record and instrument of nation building. But while political history is often allied with established authority, it can also become a weapon of political dissent by providing an alternative narrative to aspiring political parties, social movements, and subject nationalities. For most of the history of historiography, political history dominated the discipline. Beginning in the 1960s, however, first in the United States and then in Western Europe, traditional political history came under attack, first by social, then by cultural historians. After considering the character of the ensuing debate, I will conclude with some tentative thoughts about the role of political history in the future.
- From the Ancient World to the End of the Middle Ages
- History and the State
- History and the Nation
- Subversive Histories
- The Varieties of Political History in the Twentieth Century
Political history is the study of how legitimate power has been defined, distributed, and justified in the past. Two imperatives, both with ancient roots, link historiography and politics. The first is the need to affirm the identity of the political community by uncovering its roots in the past. This search for historical identity engaged both the Hebrews and Greeks at the very beginning of European culture; it moved the Romans to search for the sources of their state and prompted succeeding generations to study the history of their cultures, religions, and nations. “No question,” wrote Jean Bodin in the sixteenth century, “has exercised the writers of histories more than the origin of peoples” (Kelley, 1998). The second link between history and politics is the desire to find lessons in the past that might help solve the political problems of the present. “I shall be content,” Thucydides remarked in the first chapter of The Peloponnesian War, “if (this history) be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future” (Thucydides, 1996).
From the Ancient World to the End of the Middle Ages
Political history in the West begins with two masterpieces: Herodotus’s history of the Persian Wars, written between 445 and 425 BC and Thucydides’s history of the long conflict between Athens and Sparta, which he began in 424 BC and left unfinished when he died a quarter of a century later. Products of the extraordinary burst of cultural energy that transformed fifth- and fourth-century BC Greece, Herodotus and Thucydides combined a deep sense of the importance of their own age – Herodotus wrote about the recent past, Thucydides about events in which he himself had taken part – with an awareness of the historian’s responsibility to establish the truth about the past. Both men reflected on the problems of historical research, the reliability of eye witnesses, and the necessity of critically analyzing source material. More than any particular way of writing history, this was their most significant legacy for future historians.
The study of history was more important in Rome than it had been in Greece, perhaps because Romans were always conscious of their complex historical relationship to the Greek culture that they had both vanquished and absorbed. Roman historians examined the problem of politics from a variety of perspectives; they wrote about leadership and institutions, military strategy and court intrigue, republican virtues, and imperial ambitions. But behind these disparate approaches was a common theme: the origins, triumph, and – eventually – the decline of the Roman state, which, as republic and empire, dominated the public life of the Mediterranean world for 700 years and then continued to haunt Europeans’ historical imagination until well into the nineteenth century.
The emergence of Christianity and its adoption as the Roman Empire’s official religion transformed all of Western culture, including both politics and history. Christianity’s most immediate contribution to political historiography was to pose the problem of church and state, which would decisively shape the theory and practice of European politics from the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the twentieth century. Unlike the pagans whom they displaced or the Hebrew traditions upon which they built, Christians created religious institutions that were connected to, but not coincident with, the sources of political authority. “Spiritual and secular power,” Ranke (1962) wrote, “could approach one another and be intimately related, but they could be fused only under exceptional circumstances and for a brief period of time. Their relationships and conflicts provide one of history’s most important themes.” From Eusebius’s history of the church, which reflected the triumph of Constantine’s conversion at the beginning of the fourth century, to Otto of Freising’s twelfth-century chronicle, The Two Cities, which described the conflict between empire and papacy, to Ranke’s own history of the popes, which bore the marks of nineteenth-century’s struggles between church and state, historians searched the past for clues to the proper relationship between God and Caesar, pope and emperor, altar and throne, religious autonomy and secular authority.
History and the State
Beginning in the 1490s with the French invasion of the Italian Peninsula, a series of international, constitutional, and religious crises disrupted European politics and helped to create a new subject for political history. This subject was, in Quentin Skinner’s (1978) concise summary, “the concept of the state – its nature, its powers, its right to common obedience.” The concept of the state emerged from the dissolution of two closely connected assumptions that had shaped European political thought since Augustine: first, that the secular realm of politics had to be seen as part of a sacred order; and second, that Europe’s components – its free cities, ecclesiastical states, and various monarchies – were part of a single polity, governed by the universal laws of the church and sustained by the institutional legacies of imperial Rome. A good deal of medieval political theory and practice had been devoted to reconciling these assumptions with the stubborn realities of political life; in the first decades of the sixteenth century, Europeans began groping their way toward new ways of thinking about politics – and, therefore, toward a new kind of political history.
One of the first signs of this can be found in the work of Niccoló Machiavelli. As a Florentine who had been forced into exile by the collapse of his city’s constitutional order, Machiavelli felt the political crisis of the early sixteenth century at first hand. In The Prince and The History of Florence, Machiavelli sketched a political world that Thucydides would have recognized immediately, a world driven by struggles for power, beset by violence, subject to forces that are often beyond human capacities to control. A similar picture emerges in the work of Machiavelli’s fellow citizen and contemporary, Francesco Guicciardini, whose histories provide an even darker picture of instability and violence. But however limited people’s ability to control events, history, for both Machiavelli and Guicciardini, was a totally human enterprise, untouched by the hand of God, unfettered by a transcendent order.
Machiavelli wrote about ‘the state,’ but without giving it a clear institutional definition. This would be the great achievement of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century legal humanists, whose study of the law provided a new foundation for both politics and history. Of course law had always been an important part of European culture, but scholars like Guillaume Budé, Jean Bodin, François Baudouin, and François Hotman combined philological methods and historical analysis to create a new science of jurisprudence that enabled them to establish the origins, nature, and limits of the state’s authority. Bodin, for example, provided the classic definition of sovereignty as the supreme source of law within a commonwealth, exercised by, but clearly independent from, the ruler’s person. The work of these scholars stands at the source of one of political history’s richest traditions: the study of legal institutions and constitutional development, which includes among its practitioners such giants as Montesquieu, Sauvigny, and Maine (Kelley, 1970).
Law was also important to those who sought a vision of the international order to replace medieval universalism. Hugo Grotius, for example, who wrote during the Thirty Years War in the first half of the seventeenth century, argued that the international order was based on natural laws, which were divinely ordained but could be discovered by examining the past; like the French legal humanists, Grotius regarded the study of law and history as part of a single enterprise. By the end of the eighteenth century, under the influence of a new set of crises generated by the French Revolution and Napoleonic conquests, a number of scholars searched for an international system that was no longer based on God-given laws but was still subject to underlying principles that the historian could discover. Heeren (1834), for instance, wrote that the ‘essential property’ of the European state system was its “internal freedom, that is, the stability and mutual independence of its members. To set forth how this was formed, endangered, and preserved … is the great object of the historian.”
The historical image of a world of independent states struggling for existence within an international system was given its definitive formulation in the middle decades of the nineteenth century by Leopold von Ranke, perhaps the greatest political historian of the modern era. Von Ranke is best known for his archival work and his insistence on the critical use of primary sources. But inseparable from Ranke the great empiricist was Ranke the moral philosopher of statehood, who regarded states as the ‘ideas of God’ that move through the historical order ‘like celestial bodies.’ His work, which combined scholarly rigor with stylistic grace, was read widely and admired throughout Europe; his methods of teaching and research were adopted everywhere (Krieger, 1977).
History and the Nation
Of all kinds of history, the history of the nation has the deepest roots and the most widely extended branches. Its first and most persistently influential expression was in the Hebrew Bible, which recounts the archetypical story of a nation’s origins, defines its special historical mission, traces its survival in the face of terrible trials, and promises its eventual triumph. Their story, the Hebrews’ historians insisted, is a story like no other – among the many ways in which national histories resemble one another, none is more striking than their insistence on being unique. As for so many other nations without states, this national history sustained the Jewish people’s sense of collective identity through centuries of dispersal and oppression. And once the Jewish nation finally had its state, the story of the national past became – and this is also characteristic of the genre – the site of political debates about the nation’s present identity and future direction.
Although national history has a genealogy that extends to the dawn of Western culture, its most intellectually vigorous and politically potent versions were written in the nineteenth century when, for the first time, political history became virtually synonymous with the history of nations and nation-states. The nineteenth century was, of course, the great age of historical writing, a time when historical consciousness touched virtually every aspect of European culture, from art and literature to philosophy and the social thought and even the natural sciences. For most nineteenth-century intellectuals, to think about the world was to think about historical origins, evolution, and identity. This was a time when statesmen – men like Guizot and Macaulay – wrote history and when historians – Bancroft, Droysen, Treitschke – were active in political affairs. And this was also the era when the institutional foundation for modern historical scholarship – document collections, libraries and archives, journals and reference works – was created, much of it by, and often for, national governments.
While every nation has a story to tell about itself, every national story is different, shaped by the political imperatives, cultural climate, and institutional arrangements of each national community. Nineteenth-century French historians, for instance, whose state had an unusually long and apparently uninterrupted existence, were able to imagine a single national history. Their problem was how to find a place in this history for the trauma of revolutionary upheavals and prolonged warfare that engulfed France after 1789. For almost two centuries, French historiography was shaped by political struggles over the revolution’s legacy, just as French politics was influenced by historical struggles about the revolution’s character and significance. Among the works engaged by this project are such classics of political historiography as Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution and Michelet’s History of the French Revolution. It was not until the 1970s that François Furet could declare that the French Revolution was finally over, by which he meant that it had lost its central place in the nation’s political discourse and public memory.
Each national experience poses a distinctive ensemble of questions for its historians to confront. In Britain, these are most often questions about institutional continuity rather than revolutionary ruptures. In the US, the central historical issue is the question of identity itself, which was addressed in works like Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic study of the frontier in American history. The problem of identity also dominated German historiography in the nineteenth century: before the creation of a German nation-state, this meant a competition between different versions of the national past, after national unification, it involved demonstrating that the nation created by Bismarckian ‘blood and iron’ was the only authentic destination for the German people’s long historical journey toward political unity. In the twentieth century, German history was shaped by efforts to locate the catastrophe of National Socialism in the national past: was National Socialism, as some claimed, the destination of Germany’s ‘special path’ (Sonderweg) to modernization, or was it a particularly toxic example of a broader crisis within modern culture and politics?
An important element in the public life of every nineteenth-century state, history was even more significant for those national communities that did not have a state of their own. For the Poles, the Irish, the Czechs, and, in the course of the twentieth century, for the peoples of the world colonized by Europeans, a shared history was the surest source of present cohesion and the brightest hope for future nationhood. After all, what else did these nations possess besides their belief in a common ancestry? Often enough, this belief had to be constructed from the scattered remnants of an imagined past – literary works discovered and transcribed by patriotic scholars, ancient sites unearthed by archaeologists, memories of lost greatness brought to life in poems and plays and popular histories. Often enough the character of the national past was bitterly contested – by Czechs and Germans in Bohemia, Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, conservatives and liberals in partitioned Poland, Muslims and Christians in the Balkans. In these parts of the world, the historical significance of John Hus, whether the town was called Derry or Londonderry, the meaning of the Polish uprising of 1863, or how to commemorate the battle of Kosovo could swiftly become matters of life or death. Every national history reflects ideological divisions and political conflict, but in nations without states, the seam between politics and history was nearly invisible, so that it was usually impossible to determine where the one began and other ended.
Although historians have often been the servants of those in power, there is also a long, rich tradition of subversive historiography, written by scholars who turned to the past in order to question the established order and suggest new paths for the future. In the nineteenth century, at the same time that historians were drawn into the service of the nation-state, subversive historiography was given its most influential formulation by Karl Marx. For him, the political movements that had interested Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Ranke are surface phenomena, reflections of the deeper social conflicts from which history takes its shape and direction. Politics is merely an instrument of the ruling class, a way of justifying and defending its hold on the means of production. Traditional political historians, therefore, view the past through a distorting lens that turns the world upside down, obscuring the essential sources of change with their concern for artificial conflicts, empty slogans, and trivial events. The Marxist historian’s purpose is to substitute for these ideological distortions the radical clarity of scientific materialism, which will reveal to the proletariat the roots of its oppression and thus help prepare them for their revolutionary role in history cosmic drama. From the last decades of the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, Marxism – in all its many forms – remained the most influential form of subversive historiography.
Well before the final collapse of international communism in 1989, Marxist historiography had begun to lose its intellectual attraction and political influence. In part this was because of the diminution of ideological energies both in the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and in labor movements throughout the world. Moreover, by the 1970s, the political passions that had drawn intellectuals to Marxism during the struggle against fascism in the 1930s and against colonialism in the 1960s had cooled. The Marxist view of history was also undermined by a growing skepticism about all grand narratives, a turning away from the aspiration to grasp the meaning of human history as a whole. And finally, Marxism declined because it could not explain very well the subjects to which more and more historians now turned, especially problems of ethnicity, race, and gender, which did not fit into the categories defined by the means of production. Not surprisingly, the form of Marxism that remained most influential in Britain, the US, and most of Western Europe was associated with historians like E.P. Thompson, who tried – not always with success – to fuse class analysis with a concern for culture and politics.
Since the decline of Marxism, the subversive impulse in historiography has been fed from many other sources of which the most important, at least in the last two decades of the twentieth century, was certainly the work of the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault. Like Marx, Foucault’s enemies were oppression and inequality, his goals, freedom and community. But unlike Marx, he did not propose an alternative view of history or a critical science of society. Foucault’s project was willfully fragmented; he called his approach to the past a genealogy rather than a narrative history. Deeply concerned about what he regarded as the repressive power of organized knowledge, he was nevertheless unwilling to abandon efforts to understand and subvert the existing order of things. Above all, this meant to understand and subvert power, which was exercised not only by the agents of the state but rather was diffused “in the multiple forms of subjugation that have a place and function within the social organism.” Emancipation, therefore, required a struggle against all of what Foucault regarded as the “polymorphous techniques of subjugation” (Dirks et al., 1994).
Marx (and also, if much less influentially, Freud) had sought to subvert traditional political history by showing that politics was really a reflection of deeper social (or psychological) conflicts. Foucault subverted the conventional image of politics from the opposite direction, that is, not by showing that politics should be reduced to something else, but rather by insisting that everything – including what was once thought of as the most intimate spheres of private life – is politically charged. Both perspectives are useful since both can illuminate new problems and neglected connections. Whether they can – and should – lead to the abandonment of the subjects that have concerned political historians since classical times is much more open to question.
The Varieties of Political History in the Twentieth Century
Scholars’ interest in the past has always been influenced by contemporary crises. Thucydides was moved to write his history by the Athenians’ disastrous war with Sparta, Josephus recorded the destruction of the Jewish people by the Romans, and Augustine composed his universal history under the shadow of the Vandals’ sacking of Rome. In the modern era, the French Revolution inspired Tocqueville, the Bolshevik Revolution, Trotsky, the rise of Italian Fascism, Salvemini, Nazi totalitarianism, Arendt, the World Wars, Churchill – the list might easily be extended to include many other occasions when, to borrow Hegel’s phrase, men’s hopes were destroyed on history’s slaughter bench.
The War that shattered the world order in 1914 dominated the study of international political history for a quarter of a century. Basing their work on the documents published by all of the belligerents, historians examined both the immediate causes of the war and its deeper roots in the great power rivalries of the nineteenth century. Some of this work was obviously partisan, written to absolve the historian’s own nation of responsibility; but much of it sought to strike a balance between commitment and detachment. A notable feature of this historiography was the participation of American scholars. Responding to the hopes and disappointments that attended the failure of Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a conciliatory peace, these scholars – Sidney Fay, Robert Binkley, William L. Langer, Raymond J. Sontag, and many others – played an active role in controversy over the causes and consequences of the war. By the 1930s, there was a rough scholarly consensus that no one power was responsible for the war, which was thought to have come from a series of miscalculations by several different governments. In the 1960s, this consensus was shattered by the work of Fritz Fischer and his students who attempted to blame the war on Germany’s reckless bid for world power. Fischer’s view was bitterly attacked and then widely accepted, but no new consensus has emerged to explain what George Kennan, himself a distinguished student of international history, once called “the great seminal catastrophe of the century” (Stevenson, 1997).
In contrast to World War I, the causes of World War II did not attract much scholarly attention; virtually everyone agreed that this was Hitler’s war. But the war’s character and consequences generated an enormous historical literature, including some great works by participants such as Winston Churchill and Charles DeGaulle. Historical controversies surrounded issues such as the air war (especially the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan), wartime diplomacy, and the role of resistance and collaboration in the territories occupied by Germany and Japan. Among the historical questions about the war in Europe none are more painfully complex than those surrounding the mass murder of European Jews, conventionally known as the Holocaust. Was it, as some scholars believe, tied to a distinctive sort of German anti-Semitism? Or did it arise within the climate of violence created by the war itself? Is it best seen as a problem of German history? Or of modernity as a whole? Could it have been prevented or at least diminished by the action of Germany’s enemies? Central to the historical self-understanding of both perpetrators and victims, the Holocaust has become the century’s exemplary disaster (Marrus, 1987).
The origins of the Cold War, the global geopolitical rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US that dominated international politics from 1945 to 1989, were a matter of intense scholarly controversy throughout its long history. Was the Cold War, as some claimed, a defensive response by the Western powers to communist aggression and expansionism? Or, as the so-called ‘revisionists’ argued, did the US over estimate, perhaps even manufacture, the communist threat in order to advance its own aims throughout the world? Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides in this controversy depended largely upon sources from the Western powers, but after 1989, the empirical basis of Cold War historiography was transformed by the opening of archives in both the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies. As a result, historians have begun to create a new picture of international history in the second half of the twentieth century (Gaddis, 1997).
Among the great themes of world history is the expansion of European power which began in the late fifteenth century and ended during the second half of the twentieth century, when the colonial states either abandoned or were expelled from their overseas possessions. European expansion was the subject of many important historical studies, including the analyses by J.A. Hobson and V.I. Lenin that inspired several generations of anti-imperialist writers. Decolonization also had a lively historiography, stimulated in part by the traumatic wars fought by France in Algeria and by the US in Indochina. In the 1990s, historians became interested in what became known as postcolonialism, that is, the persistent and reciprocal relationship between colonized and colonizer both during and after the colonial experience itself. While many postcolonial studies take up issues that seem far distant from conventional political history – for instance, questions of gender, sexuality, and cultural identity – they are all connected to the ways in which political power is defined and distributed.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, political historians have become increasing aware of the importance of regional and loyal allegiances and institutions. A number of recent works on the revolutions of 1848, such as Jonathan Sperber’s account of the Rhineland, have shown how tensions between central and local authorities affected both the origins and outcome of the revolution. Historians have also become sensitive to the historicity of the national state: Eugen Weber, for instance, has described the long and uneven process through which the French state imposed its values in the countryside, while Linda Colley, among many others, has uncovered the way in which Britain became a focus of people’s interests and loyalties. The upheavals that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s produced a cluster of new works on the historical sources of ethnic identity and changing nature of nationalism in the twentieth century. In these studies, traditional questions about state power and politics are enriched by a new concern for ethnicity, culture, and identity.
Although it no longer has the unquestioned historiographical primacy it once enjoyed, the history of politics remains a vigorous and remarkably diverse enterprise. For the general public, political history is a source of apparently endless fascination. Each year a staggering number of books, especially biographies and battle narratives, are published about subjects such as the American Civil War and World War II. Among professional historians there are signs that political history may have recovered some of the ground lost to social and cultural history in the 1970s and 1980s. An increasing number of scholars are now seeking to apply social scientific methods and concepts to the study of both domestic and international politics. At the same time, insights from cultural anthropology and literary criticism have raised interesting new questions about the nature of political power and identity.
The history of politics is important because individuals’ lives are shaped and limited by political institutions, while the very existence of their communities depends on how political power is exercised and restrained. The illusion that politics does not matter is a luxury that only those fortunate enough to live in a rich and orderly state can afford. Moreover, while the importance of national history may have declined in Western Europe, for much of humanity the question of national identity remains vitally relevant; in many places people are still willing to die – and to kill – in behalf of their own version of the national story. And the emergence of a new set of problems and opportunities from the wreckage of the Cold War system will certainly raise a new set of questions about the past and future of the international politics.
Does knowledge of the past help us, as Thucydides and Machiavelli and so many others believed, to master our own political problems? To be sure, few now share the confidence expressed by Lord Acton in his inaugural lecture of 1895 that “the science of politics is the one science that is deposited by the streams of history, like the grains of gold in the sand of a river; and the knowledge of the past, the record of truths revealed by experience, is eminently practical, as an instrument of action and a power that goes to making the future” (Acton, 1957, pp. 25, 26). And yet the impulse to extract lessons from the past seems irresistible; historical references and analogies are everywhere a prominent part of political discourse. If nothing else, the study of past politics should help to assay the ore left by the stream of history and to recognize the fool’s gold so often on display in the rhetoric of public life.
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