49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2003
I've read a number of works about colonial America, the American Revolution, and the subsequent founding of the United States.
In my opinion, this is by far the best single volume book on the subject of the birth of the United States. Not only do you get a great overview of the events leading up to the American Revolution and the Revolution itself, but the story about the struggle to create the new nation after the 1783 peace settlement is also fascinating. This book is very well written. It will be welcomed reading for both the knowledgable American history enthusiast and for those who for the first time may be seeking to understand the birth of our great nation.
43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
As Ferling explains, "The title of this book was taken from a line in a newspaper essay written in 1776 by a Pennsylvanian who opposed American independence. [A substantial majority of colonials did.] To separate from the mother country, he cautioned, was to make 'a leap in the dark,' to jump into an uncertain future." Ferling goes on to note that, indeed, "Twenty years before independence, it would have been a leap in the dark for the individual colonies to surrender their autonomy and consent to a national confederation of thirteen provinces or for the imperial government in London to countenance such a union." In this volume, Ferling covers a period of time which extends from the Stamp Act of 1765 until Thomas Jefferson's inauguration as president in 1801.
His focus is less on the Revolutionary War itself, more on the immensely complicated, at times confusing political process prior to and following the Declaration of Independence. Those who signed that document fully understood that they were also signing their own death warrant if the subsequent war were lost. It is probably impossible for us today to appreciate the nature and extent of uncertainty for those who resisted British policies, declared independence, went to war against the (then) world's greatest military power, embraced republicanism, ratified the Constitution, enfranchised additional citizens, elected or selected officials who had no prior experience with public service, and cast aside the culture and values of their Anglo-American past. It is this great "darkness" of peril and ambiguity which Ferling enables his reader to explore.
With all due respect to Ferling's comprehensive and compelling erudition, I especially appreciate his writing style with which he brilliantly enlivens the narrative with a mastery of figurative language worthy of a Dickens or Balzac. Without in any sense compromising his primary and secondary sources, he brings to life a society more than 200 years distant from ours and portrays each of its great leaders with style, wit, and grace, to be sure, but also acknowledges their flaws. I have always believed that major historical figures are credible only to the extent that they are presented as human beings rather than as deities. (I think that is especially true of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.) In his final chapter, Ferling's concluding remarks about the election of 1800 also provide what I consider to be an appropriate conclusion to this brief commentary of mine: "Thus, the election of 1800 ushered in a revolution 'in the principles of our government as [profound as] that of 1776 was in its form.' The route to this new day was the road chosen by America's patriots in 1776, for they had believed that the 'blessings...necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people' included 'a wise and frugal government' that rejected tyranny and was based on the popular will. The day now had arrived when the government they wished was being installed. Its promise was considerable. Indeed, said President Jefferson, it was 'the world's best hope.'" And that remains true in 2004, more than 200 years later.
The title of this book may be "A Leap in the Dark" but it provides, in fact, a thoughtful and sensitive illumination of human potentialities, a vision which continues to guide and inform, indeed nourish our quest for enlightenment.
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Ferling's other works, notably Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, John Adams: A Life, Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America (American History Series), The First of Men: A Life of George Washington, A Wilderness of Miseries: War and Warriors in Early America, and Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 (Pivotal Moments in American History).
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2003
This book does an excellent job of synthesizing the political beliefs of the many founders of our country, providing context of both time and economic conditions. It is a well-written, engaging book for those of us who got caught up in the new round of biographies -- John Adama and Benjamin Franklin, most notably -- that renewed our love of U.S. history. It puts these figures in context against each other and gives us something to build from as we continue the exploration of our country's roots.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2009
Ferling is always a pleasure to read. I also recommend his "Almost A Miracle". This work is a great place to begin for an overview of this period, especially Ferling's account of the events leading up to the Revolution. However, it seems to me that Ferling generalizes too much in the years after the Constitution.
The portrait Ferling paints is one of the non-elite Anti-Federalists vs. the elite Federalists. However, many Anti-Federalists came from the elite whose power within states was threatened by stronger central government. The Clinton-Livingston machine that ran New York and the planter elite that controlled Virginia are examples. This over-simplification is extended into his discussion of Federalists vs. Republicans. For example the small farmers of Shay's rebellion benefitted from the Federal assumption of state debts and became enduring Federalists. Also, many of the "new men" Ferling speaks of, including the self-made Hamilton, were Federalists. The geographical split of the parties is not explained. By 1800, Federalists were strong in New England, but becoming virtually non-existent in the South. It is hard to believe that New England was composed of elitists and left-over Tories, while the South was the home of egalitarians.
I agree with Ferling's statement in his preface that people rarely adopt ideologies that conflict with their personal interests. This was no less true of Anti-federalists and Republicans, though Ferling shows this connection more clearly with their opponents. It is good to remember that the yeomen farmers of Virginia, whom Jefferson praises as the foundation of republicanism, were dependant on and deferential to wealthy planters like Jefferson making it safe for him to embrace them. And the Southern Republicans' resistance to central government dovetailed nicely with the preservation of their peculiar institution, slavery. By working to insure a weak central government that would not interfere in (or tax) property rights in land or slaves, Republicans made sure that the people would not have the means to threaten their privileged status.
I would strongly recommend to anyone who wishes to more fully understand the period from 1788 to 1800 to read Elkins and McKitrick's "The Age of Federalism". It is a thorough, well-written and detailed account that will provide many of the nuances that Ferling leaves out. For an excellent treatment of the underpinnings of 18th century political economy read Drew McCoy's "Elusive Republic". Another good read is Elizabeth Dunn's "Dominion of Memories" which, in a small volume, packs a lot of information on Virginia's planter elite, their obsession with protecting a pastoral utopia that never really existed and the decline of the Old Dominion. The time period for this work is largely 19th century, however it does show the background of Republican thinking and how that ideology played out in Virginia. Joseph Ellis' "American Sphinx" gives a less hagiographic (and fuller) view of Jefferson.
31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2006
In "A Leap In The Dark", John Ferling turns out a well paced overview of the personalities and political philosophies of the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries.
I was happy to see him start with George Washington and Ben Franklin's younger life, previous to the Revolutionary era. All too often, this formative period is ignored or imagined as unconnected with the beginning days of our Republic.
Only one thing about this book annoyed me, however. Ferling's constant denigration of James Madison revealed his obvious lack of respect for that indispensable Founder. Madison was an incredible man who outlived all the other Founders and was totally integral to every era of our early Republic. From shepherding the birth of the Constitution to becoming an early creator of our two party system, Madison was everywhere. He was even there to disavow what became the Confederate ideas of secession during the 1830s Nullification crisis.
But, Ferling treats Madison like a bumbling idiot. Of course, he is parroting much of the writing of other historians who shares his opinion and since it seems that this entire book is based on secondary research (other scholar's works) and not his own primary research, I guess his dislike of Madison might be expected. After all, Madison had gone through a phase of being unduly discounted by many current historians.
Still, this is a good overview book and should be read by anyone who might be a bit less informed about our Founding era. It most surely will spark interest in further reading.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2005
John Ferling ambitiously sets out in this book to cover an extensive and rich period of American history. As his chapter titles suggest, the period covered spans from 1754 to 1801. I chose this book instead of Robert Middlekauff's Glorious Cause as an introduction to America's founding because it goes beyond the ratification of the Constitution (where Glorious Cause ends) to cover the contest between Federalists and Republicans and the presidencies of Washington and Adams. I wanted a comprehensive survey of the period and Ferling certainly delivered. The book does, however, focus primarily on the political evolution of the period and skims the military history.
So very much happened in the time between 1754 and 1801, that it is impossible to thoroughly address every event and happening. Ferling has condensed the period into merely 500 pages, something that could take well over 2000 pages to thoroughly cover. But he has focused in on the important events and processes for his book to adequately serve as an introduction to the beginnings of the United States. I especially enjoyed, as many of the other reviewers have, the interesting portraits he paints of the most important characters: George Washington, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. These 4- to 8-page descriptions can serve as jump-off points to pursue these characters in more depth in other works.
A Leap in the Dark is an excellent introduction to the American Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, and the first two American presidencies. If, however, you are already familiar with the general course of events and personalities of the period, it would be better to seek out works more narrowly focused.
28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2003
america needs to get a grip on it's own history to better relate to the rest of the world. from president bush down to the coffee house waitress, everyone needs to read this book. concentrating on the politics and personalities that produced our nation, it demonstrates that despite the flaws and narrow mindedness of many that the product of their work is about as good as people can devise. the founders were far from perfect, nor motives always pure, but they did the best they could with the cards dealt them. from the stamp act in 1765 to the election of jefferson in 1800, where the book ends, is a 35 year period that could have gone many different directions. then another 65 years to settle some of the unresolved issues with the civil war. then another 100 years to guarentee full citizenship to all people. we should remember this as the US seeks change in other countries under very difficult circumsatnces.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"A Leap in the Dark" is one of the finest one-volume histories of the War of Independence on shelves today!
John Ferling is a truly balanced historian, eschewing the quasi-Marxist tendencies of Howard Zinn's treatment of the Revolution in his "People's History of the United States" while also avoiding the opposite temptation to delve into triumphalism, as seen in "A Patriot's History of the United States."
Ferling is to be resoundingly commended for his fair, even-handed treatment of the Revolution...but that's not to say that the book isn't readable. On the contrary, "A Leap in the Dark" reads like a fascinating novel, with the Founders coming down from their lofty heights to the lower level of us mere mortals. Franklin, Adams, Jefferson; they come alive, with all their genius and failings.
The War of Independence is portrayed as a result of many different issues and the product of many unique motivations--instead of the monothematic belief some historians cling to. Ferling offers a compellingly honest look at the causes of the Revolution, as well as its cost upon the people in America, both pro-independence and loyalist.
In all, "A Leap in the Dark" is a masterpiece of scholarship, fairmindedness, and readability.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Organized resistance, declaring independence, winning the subsequent war with Great Britain, establishing a national constitutional state, and surviving the minefields of European rivalries - none of these developments were inevitable, or some cases even probable. A Leap in the Dark is an excellent exposition of the efforts, difficulties, conflicting interests, and justifications that were factors in the various colonies moving away from the protection of the mother state and achieving a stable, although somewhat fortunate, political presence. The leading figures (and some lesser figures) of the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary era are seen having to deal with highly complex and divisive issues.
A lot of ground is covered in this book. The book opens with Benjamin Franklin, as an attendee of a multi-colonial conference in the mid 1750s, proposing that the colonies form a national body primarily for defense against the French and Indians. But the various colonies were far too protective of their quasi-independent standing to seriously pursue unity, not to mention the uneasiness of England in such a proposal. It took a series of incredibly heavy-handed edicts initiated by Parliament and British ministers from 1764-74 to create a sense of unity and common resolve among the colonists that countered their vast geographical and informational separation. But unanimity against the British hardly existed.
A constant theme in the book is the interplay of conservative, elitist, and aristocratic interests versus those more popular and democratic - that is republican. That divide also was part and parcel of the interplay of rural and urban interests; farming, artisanal, and mercantile interests; the interests of northern, middle Atlantic, and southern colonies; etc. It was no small feat to gain sufficient support to realistically declare independence; predictably new problems emerged. The newly emergent United States had to contend with an ineffectual national structure (the Articles of Confederation); inadequate funding of the war effort coupled with rampant inflation; and a series of military blunders - which taken together could have easily lost the war for the US.
The more conservative of the founders recognized the precarious position of the United States in the world community after signing a peace accord with Great Britain and pushed for a constitutional convention. The same differences and perspectives existed as before, but now the conservatives had the upper hand. The author clearly sees the US Constitution as a triumph for conservatives by the creation of a document that clearly was structured to check republican reform. The contentious ratification of the Constitution was a mere harbinger of what was to come in the next twelve years. During the presidencies of Washington and Adams, foreign affairs and the potential for alignment or warfare with Britain or France exacerbated existing differences and led to the more formal formation of the Federalist and Republican political parties. The American Revolution seemed to get off track with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 at the behest of Hamilton and his supporters. But that zeal to restrict hard-fought freedoms is seemingly turned around as the author closes with the ascendancy of the republican forces, that is, Thomas Jefferson, to the presidency.
No one book can capture the complexity of the American Revolution. By necessity this book excludes at least some of the events and facts of that period. The author is far more concerned with capturing the thinking, contradictions, and the power of the different interests to propel their vision in that era. To cover such a complex thirty-five year period is an ambitious undertaking and is about as successful as could be expected. This book cannot help but add to an understanding of that most important period in our history.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2008
An unbelievable story that should have been sub-titled "Against All Odds!" You think you have a little understanding of the American Revolution, and yet you realize after reading this book that you have been treated to two different accounts. I remember watching a movie that taught us that we should always follow the money. Whether it involved money paid in taxes, money loaned by France, worthless Continnental Script, runaway inflation, either do it my way or die trade laws, American heros who initiated the action now leaving the fight for other pursuits, Washington and Madison calling for Jefferson to return to the cause, colonial farmers and merchants selling grain and salt and foodstuffs to the British instead of the Continnental Army because England paid in hard currency (damn the cause), three years of little or no fighting between 1778 and 1781, our congress after Washington's neck, the French conducting secret alliances with Spain at the expense of the Americans, the colonies bankrupt (they just don't know it), living conditions so bad that the Americans are considering a truce with England, one out of ten revolutionary soldiers killed in action, 7 out of 8 revolutionary soldiers die from disease, starvation and harsh elements; how we ever survived ourselves is of great wonder, not to mention the most powerful nation on earth, England. It was truly a leap in the dark, and by all reason we should have been up to our necks in quick sand, and yet we overcame and have continued to meet the challenge up through today. And Sam Adams, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and other Americans of the cause certainly showed all their warts and scars by the time the conflict ceased. The more I read this one book, the more I am convinced that it was devine intervention from the Lord above, and not King George who thought the throne entitled him to devine providence, that helped our embryonic republic survive all the many challenges of war and forming a national government and then 13 seperate state governments. There is no way we would have attempted today what the founding fathers accomplished centuries ago. Instead of sipping a Bud at day's end, we would be sipping a cup of intolerable tea. I'm glad they leaped without taking a good look. We owe it all to them!