A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic
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It was an age of fascinating leaders and difficult choices, of grand ideas eloquently expressed and of epic conflicts bitterly fought. Now comes a brilliant portrait of the American Revolution, one that is compelling in its prose, fascinating in its details, and provocative in its fresh interpretations.
In A Leap in the Dark, John Ferling offers a magisterial new history that surges from the first rumblings of colonial protest to the volcanic election of 1800. Ferling's swift-moving narrative teems with fascinating details. We see Benjamin Franklin trying to decide if his loyalty was to Great Britain or to America, and we meet George Washington when he was a shrewd planter-businessman who discovered personal economic advantages to American independence. We encounter those who supported the war against Great Britain in 1776, but opposed independence because it was a "leap in the dark." Following the war, we hear talk in the North of secession from the United States. The author offers a gripping account of the most dramatic events of our history, showing just how closely fought were the struggle for independence, the adoption of the Constitution, and the later battle between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. Yet, without slowing the flow of events, he has also produced a landmark study of leadership and ideas. Here is all the erratic brilliance of Hamilton and Jefferson battling to shape the new nation, and here too is the passion and political shrewdness of revolutionaries, such as Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, and their Loyalist counterparts, Joseph Galloway and Thomas Hutchinson. Here as well are activists who are not so well known today, men like Abraham Yates, who battled for democratic change, and Theodore Sedgwick, who fought to preserve the political and social system of the colonial past. Ferling shows that throughout this period the epic political battles often resembled today's politics and the politicians--the founders--played a political hardball attendant with enmities, selfish motivations, and bitterness. The political stakes, this book demonstrates, were extraordinary: first to secure independence, then to determine the meaning of the American Revolution.
John Ferling has shown himself to be an insightful historian of our Revolution, and an unusually skillful writer. A Leap in the Dark is his masterpiece, work that provokes, enlightens, and entertains in full measure.
against popular majorities, injustice, faction, confusion, and—he mentioned this only in private—the “leveling spirit.”58 Madison thus set for himself to solve a conundrum: was it possible to establish a national republican government with the strength to satisfy the cravings of the most powerful elements within the land, yet somehow ensure that this government not only would remain in “safe” hands, but that those who wielded authority would be properly restrained? In short, was it possible to
Schoenbachler, “Republicanism in the Age of Democratic Revolution,” JER 18:241. 24. Ibid., 18:243; Albrecht Koschnik, “The Democratic Societies of Philadelphia and the Limits of the American Public Sphere, circa 1793–1795,” WMQ 58 (2001): 630–31. 25. Nathaniel Chipman to AH, [June] 9, 1794, PAH 16:465–70; AH, “No Jacobin” , PAH 15:269. 26. Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic, 90; Gordon Wood, “Early American Get-Up-and-Go,” New York Review of Books (June 29, 2000), 50–53;
that “the breach becomes greater and more alarming.”19 North’s government never planned a showdown in 1773. Its strategy remained, as Franklin correctly reported, to play for time. However, as sometimes happens in history, a peripheral matter brought things to a head. The North ministry knew far better than backcountry farmers that, despite the embargo, a great deal of tea was being consumed in the colonies. It was delighted to be gaining a modest revenue, but it was also troubled by the
with Great Britain was “fast ripening” in the holdout provinces. By June 10 Congress knew that it would be only a matter of days, or weeks, “till the voice of the people drove us into it,” as some congressmen curiously put it. Even so, the debate over declaring independence was furious. If Congress acted before their provinces instructed them to vote for independence, several mid-Atlantic congressmen threatened, they would “retire & possibly their colonies might secede from the Union.” Their
Some thought independence would buoy morale, as trade with France would ensure the availability of those necessities, including money, for which the civilians yearned.7 On June 11, after hours of vexatious debate, Congress agreed to table the issue for three weeks. Nevertheless, it appointed a five-member committee to prepare a statement on independence during the interim. The panel included Jefferson, who was respected for his literary abilities; Adams, who had led the pro-independence faction