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Thursday, July 7, 2016

“Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It”, by John Ferling

432 pages, Bloomsbury Press, ISBN-13: 978-1620401729

Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It by John Ferling is his latest book covering the same subject, after Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America, The First of Men: A life of George Washington, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the American Revolution, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic…and it shows as he cites his previous books and articles as a source hundreds of times (his description of Horatio Gates comes straight out of his own 1992 biography of John Adams: A Life, a book which is, furthermore, a retelling of his two-volume biography of Adams from the 1960s). This latest volume, however, highlights some of the thinking that was going on at the time of the American Revolution and some of the events and writings that sparked a change of thought in many people; for instance, independence was not on everyone’s mind when began as many Americans simply wanted to have adequate representation and influence in British governance of their land. In the preface Ferling states that “[t]his book argues that the colonists were generally happy with the imperial relationship in the early 1760s, and for a considerable time thereafter. If Great Britain…had repealed most of its objectionable new colonial policies, as the First Continental Congress demanded in 1774, returning the Anglo-American relationship to where it had stood in 1763, Congress would not have declared independence”. Ferling is an excellent writer and fully versed in his subject, but the only justification I can see for writing this book is that it concentrates more on personalities, both American and British, and less on the events themselves. If you have an interest in who did what and when then you will find this book useful, but if you want to know more about the events themselves then I suggest that you read the two earlier books.

Ferling writes about the American Revolution effortlessly as a lifetime of scholarship and immersion in the writings of contemporaries and historians alike has made him a most fluent author on the subject. The ability of Ferling to incorporate a prodigious amount of facts about relevant people, battles, documents, and events while maintaining a focused storyline is what makes this such a lively and well-written book. His passion for the American Revolution is never more apparent than when he writes of the philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution, and I was particularly moved by his adoration for the Declaration of Independence, its author and, most importantly, the underlying messages therein. John Ferling writes that “With peerless eloquence – and in simple and uncluttered language – Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence glided effortlessly, like a vessel on placid water…he was a penman with a genius for the cadence of the written word, a writer conversant with music”. “That is one reason why the document was read by successive generations, and is still read today,” Ferling states, but more importantly, “Like Paine before him, Jefferson evoked the colonists’ pain, disappointment, reproach, sense of betrayal, and anger. More important, he embraced the hope and expectations that had swelled in the hearts and minds of the colonists by 1776, including the widespread desire for a more egalitarian society”.

But Ferling repeatedly stresses the economic impetus for the outbreak of the Revolutionary War on both sides of the Atlantic. Parliament’s actions infuriated the American colonists because of the impact on their livelihoods. The political and philosophical implications weren’t lost on educated men like John Adams, John Dickinson, and James Otis who were critical of the British government for imposing taxes on the colonists while the colonies were not represented in Parliament; they felt that this violated their rights as Englishmen as guaranteed in the original charters. But the colonists were stirred to action by the economic impact of taxes levied and trade regulation being enforced stringently. Once fighting breaks out, however, Ferling’s book unfolds linearly from Lexington Common, to Saratoga, to Savanah and Charleston, and finally to Yorktown. While connecting the dots between the most vital military engagements of the Revolutionary War Ferling describes lesser known battles of significant strategic importance, such as the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of the Great Bridge. Ferling is able to describe the battles in a vivid and exciting manner that adds an element of suspense not found in many history books. Ferling is able to remain focused on the most important military theaters of the war at a given time period, while incorporating important developments throughout the colonies, ancillary and often incidental facts and actions of key figures of the Revolution and the corresponding political storyline unfolding in England, without confusing the reader for one instant. He masterfully deals with the time lapse created by the slow transportation and communication over the Atlantic in the 18th Century, a dynamic that many historians fail to transcend in their writing.

With Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It Ferling has managed to boil down a lifetime of research and findings into a succinct description of the period between 1763 and 1783 in the American colonies and England, making it by far his most concise analysis of the American Revolutionary War.

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