Whirlwind: A book review by Bob Morris

WhirlwindWhirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It
John Ferling
Bloomsbury Press (2015)

How and why the American Revolution “was caused and driven by economic factors and colonists’ desire to control their destiny”

I was and remain intrigued by John Ferling’s unique approach to the American Revolution, one that he explains in the Preface: “The book differs from most other histories of the American Revolution in several ways. It emphasizes that the colonial insurgency was caused, and driven, by economic factors and by the desire of the colonists to exercise greater control, over their destiny, which in itself often had an economic basis. I don’t suggest that ideas about freedom and liberty sere unimportant; ideas provided a prism for how the colonists saw themselves and the actions of leaders in the mother country. Nor was ambition insignificant. The desire to improve one’s lot — whether economically or by gaining power and renown — shaped the conduct of a great many actors in the Revolution. Men such as Adams and George Washington spoke frankly of the yearning for honor and reputation.”

Ferling does indeed focus not just on the colonies but on the mother country as well, examining the choices faced by the imperial leaders and the reasons for their decisions. There were foes of the British policy toward the colonists at every step and, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, a majority of the colonists were royalists. “This book evaluates those who held high civil and military positions, lesser-known individuals who joined the protests and managed affairs at the local level, and above all, those who bore arms as Continental soldiers and sailors or militiamen.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Ferling’s coverage:

o British controls over the colonies (Pages 12-15, 20-23, and 80-83)
o Stamp Act (21-32)
o Debates on Stamp Act (32-35)
o British reprisals against Massachusetts (55-56 and 81-84)
o Sam Adams urging popular resistance (67-72 and 79-80)
o Intolerable (Coercive) Acts (81-87)
o First Continental Congress (90-98)
o Preparations for American Revolution (110-116)
o Second Continental Congress (117-125)
o Battle of Bunker Hill (128-131)
o Parliamentary debates on retribution for colonial victories (132-136)
o Benedict Arnold (144-146, 190-191, and 272-274)
o Second Continental Congress and Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence (157-165)
o George Washington and Charles Lee: Focus on New York campaign (166-179)
o Campaigns of Continental and British armies (184-202)
o Horatio Gates (191-195)
o George Washington as military commander (213-217)
o John Adams and changing attitudes (223-227)
o Changes as a result of the War for Independence (223-233 and 329-335)
o Military action in the Southern Theater, 1780-178 (245-266 and 279-283)
o Sir Henry Clinton in South Carolina (255-261)
o Charles Cornwallis in North Carolina (289-292)
o Continuation of American Revolution (329-335)

With regard to the book’s title, Ferling took it from a line in a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife during the final, tempestuous weeks leading to the Declaration of Independence. Adams suggested that judgment and courage would be required “to ride in this Whirlwind.” I agree with Ferling: “The great promise of America was that it really had begun the world anew.” The Revolutionary War may have been over but not the American Revolution.

Presumably this is what Joseph Ellis has in mind when suggesting, in The Quartet, that four founders were essential to winning what he characterizes as “the second American Revolution.” As he explains, “a political quartet [Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison] diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Congress, collaborated to set their agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying convention s, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.”

I am deeply grateful to John Ferling for each of his previously published books and especially for his latest because, with rigor and eloquence, he brings to life persons and events that converged prior to, during, and following the American Revolution. These are his concluding observations: “In his first days as president, Jefferson, using a nautical metaphor, reflected in letters to friends that although the American Revolution had sailed through stormy seas, it ‘stood the waves into which she was steered with a view to sink her.’ But the American Revolution had at last arrived safely in port. The birthday of a new world was indeed at hand. America, President Jefferson continued, had ‘returned…to sentiments worthy of former times’ — those of 1776.”

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