The unlikely creation of July Fourth
A new history of the United States avoids national myths or cynicism
John Ferling's study of the early United States, "A Leap into the Dark," is solid history that will refresh anyone's memory of the essential stories and figures in America's founding. And it will enlighten anyone about the origin of some current civic problems.
One strength of the book is indicated in its title. Ferling, a history professor at the State University of West Georgia, writes well about the daring nature of the attempt to unite North America. From 1763 (where Ferling begins his story) through 1787 (when the Constitution was drafted) to 1800 (when the federal government underwent its first administrative transition from one party to another), Ferling shows the survival of a united sovereignty was no sure thing, but "a leap into the dark."
Since Sept. 11, we have regained some sense, in the parlance of historians, of our "contingency." Freedom, even Western civilization itself, may seem like a given, but in fact it's the result of effort, bravery, and serendipity. To the Founders, the future was an unknown, bigger than the continent they yearned to possess. Ferling ably recovers some sense of how unsure they were. His book provides not just political and intellectual history, but emotional history as well.
He also provides good, tart sketches of the Founders - the major figures and others such as Sam Adams, John Otis, and Tom Paine. He is determined neither to praise nor bury them, in contrast both to the triumphalist history that many of us were raised on or the ironic revisionism of the nouveau gauche. Ferling is sage enough to present the Founding Fathers as great, but not without flaws and the complexities of their time. It is a delicate balance, but he keeps it.
Ben Franklin first proposed a plan of union within the British Empire, when the states were still colonies in 1763, mostly as a lever to dispossess the French and Spanish from their colonial empires. George Washington railed against London, but often for its Indian policy, which prevented him from real estate speculation in the Ohio valley. Patrick Henry loved not just liberty, but also the sound of his own voice. Notoriously, many Founders championed liberty, but sanctioned slavery.
Ferling is also healthily determined to debunk the myth of the golden age - though not destroy it. As he notes, at least a few politicians back then had something of the statesmen about them. They were not just politicians, but political philosophers. Hamilton and Madison, especially in their Federalist papers, persuaded enough of the nation - equivocally, Ferling shows - to endorse the Constitution.
Yet such political thinkers were not philosopher kings, but creatures of flesh, blood, and horse-trading (Ferling is best regarding this on Jefferson, whose reputation for high-flown rhetoric hid a hard bargainer).
Triumphalism is innocent about the Founders; revisionism is innocent about the rest of mankind. Ferling is free from both illusions. He is not unconscious of the "culture wars" or "history wars" over the founding, but he should be keener to distinguish his vision from both extremes, especially the left-wing historians who hijacked the federally sponsored K-12 national history standards in 1994 and proudly declared of the United States, "Guilt 'R' Us!"
Ferling's style is pleasant, but could be crisper. One key leitmotif - present, but not pointed - is the constant tug between forces of centralization and decentralization in American politics. In Ferling's view, there were two revolutions: one in 1776, a rebellion against centralized power in London; and one in the 1790s, against the centralization of power in the new national government. Many - not all (witness Patrick Henry) - assented to the Constitution.
Still, even some of the Constitution's supporters (Madison among them) grew worried when Hamilton persuaded Washington to establish a national bank and other centralizing institutions. Ferling's unifying theme is the difficulty of living in unity in a large nation. This resonates down through the Civil War to our own alienation from distant bureaucracies that seem to have such power over us. Ferling says this, but fails to headline it as he should.
Oxford University Press produces good crossover books - stalwart scholarship, neither stuffy nor jargon-filled but clear in meaning and accessible to wide audiences. If only the efforts of such presses and their authors were a tad more heroic! There is a gigantic audience, mostly younger, that knows little history, and there are few chances left to make it come fully alive for them. Ferling is capable of this, and "A Leap into the Dark" aims in the right direction. One hundred fewer pages and some stronger definition of its themes would have done the book no harm.
• Tom O'Brien frequently writes for the Saturday Civil War section of The Washington Times.