A Leap In The Dark: The Struggle To Create The American Republic, by John Ferling
It seems reasonably clear that this book was written at least partially in response to what may be seen as extremely patriotic and exceptionalist claims in the inevitability of American Independence . Yet it is also clear that this book goes too far in the other direction by pointing merely to the contingent and chance elements of the period between 1754 and 1800 (in 480 pages of very scholarly writing) without any understanding of the divine providence that works through human agency. Sometimes it feels as if this book spends so much time looking at the chaos and manipulation and canny political sense (or lack thereof) of American and British and French leaders in this tumultuous period that the overall sense is lost of autonomous and often feuding colonies whose pressures for greater recognition of autonomy led to independence and then to an uneven progress towards greater egalitarianism and democracy.
Even given its flaws, though, this is an excellent book that is worthy of being read by anyone who does not mind the high level of language as well as the immense wealth of detail, albeit selective detail, chosen in the book’s 480 pages. The book is clearly interested mostly in political philosophy and political history, with other elements (like military history) receiving much less commentary except insofar as they deal with political concerns. What is interesting about this book is that it seeks to draw threads not only between the behavior of different people over time as they shifted in their alliances and in whether they would be considered as radicals, moderates, or conservatives, and as nationalists and localists. Given the general drift of American politics, it also appears as if there was early an oscillation between different sides, in which the behavior of temporary majorities often provoked a severe response on the part of those in opposition. Examples of this appear over and over again in the book–the temporary majorities of those who wanted reconciliation with Britain were crushed by Britain’s politically maladroit behavior in 1774 through 1776. Likewise, localists acted in ways that provoked a significant amount of people to support the establishment of a much more nationalist Constitution, while the Federalists severely overreached in pushing Hamilton’s aims as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts that led to the establishment of a nominally egalitarian Democratic-Republican majority in 1800, where this book closes. This oscillation is certainly relevant with regards to contemporary political trends.
Also of great interest is the way that this book seeks to point out that no sides were innocents here. Regardless of political ideology, there was seeking, problems of corruption, and a certain amount of hypocrisy in the sort of appeals to freedom that were made. While Southerners like Jefferson were often abhorrent at the exploitation of the poor that would take place in an industrialized America, they were often blind to the exploitation of poor whites and enslaved blacks in their own section. Likewise, the Federalist desire for order was often hypocritical in that many Federalists were recent elites themselves who had risen because of profiteering during the American Revolution. Likewise, service in the Continental Army gave many people a perspective that was far wider than those whose interests had been merely local or diplomatic in nature. Being a book that is full of wise, if somewhat dark and murky, insights about the very human nature of America’s founding fathers, it is a testament both to the caution as well as to the bravery of the early American Republic and how it gradually and hesitantly pointed its way to our contemporary republic. Readers of this book will find much to appreciate, much to muse over, and a great deal more detail about political shenanigans in the early American Republic than most would care to know.
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