The American Revolution, Reloaded:
A Review of John Ferling's New Book on the Pre-Independence Decades


Friday, June 6, 2003

John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford Univ. Press 2003).

Even those well-versed in American history may be shaky when it comes to the three decades leading up to American independence - which have for the most part been overshadowed by the Revolutionary War and the enactment of the Constitution.

In this wide-ranging and informative book, John Ferling, a professor of history at the State University of West Georgia, corrects that historical gap. A Leap in the Dark covers the entire revolutionary generation, from the first stirrings of rebellion in the 1750s through the end of the Revolutionary War.

The transformation of the thirteen colonies into the United States of America, Ferling argues, could not have occurred without the experiences of these three crucial decades. During this time, the colonies learned to work together, and formed a sense of themselves as separate from England.

Ferling offers a compelling account that is wide in scope - allowing us to examine the interplay of personalities and politics that made the Revolution possible. The book closes with the election of Thomas Jefferson as President in 1800. The peaceful transfer of power from John Adams to the Virginian convinced many observers on both sides of the Atlantic that this new country would survive.

British Meddling and Taxes Spur Thoughts of Independence

In 1754, Benjamin Franklin traveled to Albany to help form a defensive union among the colonies against the French and their Native American allies. Until then, the colonies had relied primarily on London to provide for their defense. But Britain had advised the colonies to organize themselves against the French, who were once again encroaching on territories claimed by the British.

Coincidentally, as Franklin traveled to Albany, a young George Washington was leading a royal mission in what was then called the Ohio Country to the French forces; shortly thereafter Washington had his first combat experience. Others who would later become famous, such as Patrick Henry or James Madison, had not yet even made an appearance on the colonial stage.

The Albany Plan proposed an American colonial government and provided for their own defense. It ultimately failed for lack of support in Britain and opposition among the colonies. But it was a harbinger of things to come.

From the late 1750s through the following decade, resistance grew against the perceived British meddling in colonial affairs, and increased taxation - some of it motivated by the need to fund the mother country's wars across the Atlantic. These affronts to colonial feelings of autonomy culminated with the 1763 Stamp Act, and the hated Townshend Acts four years later.

At the same time, the colonies began to think of themselves as connected with each other by stronger bonds than any one of them had to the mother country.

Still, as Ferling explains, despite the ill feeling generated by the new laws directed at the colonies, independence was never a guarantee; it was always a "leap in the dark." The revolutionaries were for most of this period in the minority.

There was a large population of loyalists - at least 100,000 of whom, including even Benjamin Franklin's son, left for other parts of the British Empire in this period. This is an astonishing number given that the (white male) population of the colonies was only approximately 2.5 million. There were also undoubtedly great numbers of people indifferent to the whole question of independence until it was an accepted fact. And the revolutionaries were facing the best-equipped and organized army of Europe.

In these circumstances, the British government might well have taken advantage of a number of opportunities to unite the loyalist elements of the population against the revolutionaries. Fortunately for them, however, it did not. Indeed, quite to the contrary, the British colonial governors and their superiors back home turned out to be one of the revolutionaries' great assets - for they only inflamed, rather than quieting, revolutionary sentiment.

First, the British government failed to approve the Albany Plan, as Franklin himself ruefully noted years later. In the early stages of the independence movement, the British government, more than anyone else, had the ability to cut off the activity of the Sons of Liberty and others in their tracks. But the royal officials sent to govern the colonies were almost always petty and grasping, more interest in control than compromise. As Ferling notes, "London had never abandoned its commitment to tightening its control over the colonies. . . Its intransigence made war inevitable, and hostilities doomed the hopes of those who had yearned for reconciliation."

By the late 1770s, under the sway of the rhetoric of men like Adams, Thomas Paine and others, it was too late for the British to win America's loyalty. The British government's missteps were magnified into oppressive tyranny through the brilliant propaganda campaign employed by the revolutionaries.

One merit of Ferling's book is that, in telling this pivotal story, he balances larger-scale history with numerous individual portraits of major and minor participants, from both the revolutionary and royalist ranks. The contributions of Washington, Hamilton, Madison and others are each given their due, as we follow them through their careers.

More generally, we see the colony's enthusiasm for independence slowly expand - moving from working-class revolts against British economic and social pressure, to more complex arguments for independence voiced by the members of the affluent Southern planter and New England merchant classes. Ferling skillfully traces what this shift meant in terms of governance and the shape of the new Constitution.

As Ferling discusses, the upper classes were more willing to adapt traditional British forms of government, even in independence, than were the more radical artisans and laborers. Such shifts disenchanted some of the more radical leaders, such as Samuel Adams, who retired to their home states rather than participate in the national government.

The Constitution and Beyond: Later Developments

The first real test of the constitutional machinery, however, was the election of 1800. Deadlocked between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, it had to be decided in the House of Representatives. It took thirty-six ballots, and even then Jefferson was elected only because of a side deal cut with a Delaware member of Congress that remains historically controversial to this day. His election confirmed the final stage of the Revolution, in which the former royal colonies became "the world's best hope" for democracy.

On the whole, A Leap in the Dark is an important contribution to our understanding of American independence. Those familiar with the Revolutionary War and the Constitution's framing will find it enlightening to read it, and explore further the period that set the stage for these historic events.

Gerald J. Russello, an attorney, lives in Brooklyn.

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