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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book Review: A Leap in the Dark by John Ferling

A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic 
by John Ferling
E-book, 577 pages
Oxford University Press
April 4, 2003

Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Source: Purchased for my Masters class
It was an age of fascinating leaders and difficult choices, of grand ideas eloquently expressed and of epic conflicts bitterly fought. Now comes a brilliant portrait of the American Revolution, one that is compelling in its prose, fascinating in its details, and provocative in its fresh interpretations.

In A Leap in the Dark, John Ferling offers a magisterial new history that surges from the first rumblings of colonial protest to the volcanic election of 1800. Ferling's swift-moving narrative teems with fascinating details. We see Benjamin Franklin trying to decide if his loyalty was to Great Britain or to America, and we meet George Washington when he was a shrewd planter-businessman who discovered personal economic advantages to American independence. We encounter those who supported the war against Great Britain in 1776, but opposed independence because it was a "leap in the dark." Following the war, we hear talk in the North of secession from the United States. The author offers a gripping account of the most dramatic events of our history, showing just how closely fought were the struggle for independence, the adoption of the Constitution, and the later battle between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Yet, without slowing the flow of events, he has also produced a landmark study of leadership and ideas. Here is all the erratic brilliance of Hamilton and Jefferson battling to shape the new nation, and here too is the passion and political shrewdness of revolutionaries, such as Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, and their Loyalist counterparts, Joseph Galloway and Thomas Hutchinson. Here as well are activists who are not so well known today, men like Abraham Yates, who battled for democratic change, and Theodore Sedgwick, who fought to preserve the political and social system of the colonial past. Ferling shows that throughout this period the epic political battles often resembled today's politics and the politicians--the founders--played a political hardball attendant with enmities, selfish motivations, and bitterness. The political stakes, this book demonstrates, were extraordinary: first to secure independence, then to determine the meaning of the American Revolution.
John Ferling has shown himself to be an insightful historian of our Revolution, and an unusually skillful writer. A Leap in the Dark is his masterpiece, work that provokes, enlightens, and entertains in full measure.
I’m going to preface this by saying that this is part of an opinion review that I wrote for my class, so the style is a little different from my normal reviews, but I still though it would be a valuable contribution to the blog.

I have read widely on the subject of the American Revolution, more than on any other historical subject, and A Leap in the Dark by John Ferling is one of the better ones that I have read. I enjoyed the style in which he writes; it took me a while to read each chapter, but that was because there was a lot of information and new styles of analysis to digest. That being said, it never felt like the flow was bogged down by information that was included just because it had been researched. The book is expansive in the elements that it covers and I did not feel like anything important had been left out.

The text focused on not only the political elements, but also the social issues surrounding the American Revolution. In my experience, a lot of time in other courses and texts is spent on the political implications of the various Acts and taxes imposed by the British Parliament; while this is important, and Ferling does spend time on these areas, I most appreciated how he drilled down into what the motives were behind the different historical figures actions on both sides of the Atlantic. This is where I encountered the most new material and a more well-rounded perspective on the lead up to hostilities; most notably for me were his commentaries on Samuel Adams and the Boston Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party was a much more complicated event than the mere surprising coming together of Bostonians to spill the hated tea into the harbor and to understand that makes the interpretation of this iconic event much more significant. Additionally, Samuel Adams deserves a lot more credit for his historical role than just being a rabble rouser. I also appreciated that the author did not limit his in-depth attention to those on the colonial side, but also gave significant background attention to the figures in Parliament and why they were interested in penalizing the colonists despite growing indications of hostilities. This made it easier to understand why the British acted the way they did, even though it may have seemed counterproductive to the large scale goals. Ferling does this well with many other events that occurred during the timeframe covered by this book and I am more knowledgeable for it.

One thing I appreciated that Ferling did not do in his book was spend ample time on the battles of the Revolution. I am not one who likes to read about battlefield logistics and I tend to space out and skim past these sections when they crop up in books I am reading; it is just not an area that interests me. However, I do like to learn about the implications of battlefield decisions or how a singular event or battle factored into the grand scheme of the war. This is exactly what I found in A Leap in the Dark. Ferling brings attention to select battle actions, such as Washington’s attacks at Trenton and Princeton, because they offered significant glimpses into the character of people and reasons why the war was able to continue despite many setbacks. I do not need to know how each battle was carried out, but rather what it meant to the whole of the war. Ferling never lost my attention through these sections.

While I was a fan of most of Ferling’s historical interpretations, he started to lose me when he began the discussions surrounding the animosity between the Federalists and Republicans, particularly Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. I detected a noticeable bias against Hamilton in Ferling’s analysis and a favoring of Jefferson. As historians, we are encouraged to make efforts to keep personal bias out of historical interpretation, but Ferling appears to have had issue with this here. He did not have much nice to say about the man; the closest he came to something kind was when he indicated that latter politicians should have taken a note from Hamilton’s playbook and immediately fess up when caught out in a less than desirable action. The author appears to have went out of his way to highlight all the underhanded things Hamilton did or might have done. While he also discusses the work Jefferson did behind the scenes, the manner in which he discusses these actions comes off in a more positive and respectful manner than when he discusses Hamilton. From a personal perspective, this bothered me more than it might have others because I tend to find myself favoring Hamilton over Jefferson in these discussions, but regardless, Ferling’s treatment of Hamilton felt heavy-handed.

I think that the timeframe that Ferling chose to cover in this book was well chosen. Most would expect that a book on the American Revolution might cover the war exclusively or maybe through the presidency of George Washington, as this would be the real start of the United States as we recognize it now. Ferling chooses to bring the narrative up through the election of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the country. I think this was an excellent choice because everything was still very rocky for the fledgling country up through then and it could have easily foundered. Up until Jefferson’s election, the country had been run by those who had significant roles in the pre-revolution days as well as the founding of the country and led the country in a similar style. With the election of Jefferson it was a transition of power from one political party to another. In many other countries, a shift in political power was accompanied by bloodshed or even the collapse of a newly formed country, and others were waiting to see what would happen to the United States. Here it was a peaceful shift in power which signified the strength of the country to be able to do so and showed the world, and those in the States, that they had made it to a new stage in development; they were arguably no longer in their revolutionary days.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

Also by John Ferling:

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence

Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800

John Adams: A Life

The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon

Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation

Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free

Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution

Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It

Find John Ferling:


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