A review of A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, by John Ferling

Were American independence and the American republic products of ideas and rational debates, or results of selfish economic and political interests? This is a bad question, because the only sensible response would be "yes"—that is, yes, both of the above—thus refusing the choice that the question proposes. Yet it is a question that otherwise sophisticated historians of America have often felt obliged to answer very simply, one way or the other. 

John Ferling, a professor of history at the State University of West Georgia, used to answer the question by coming down on the side of ideas, but he has changed his mind. He prefaces his most recent book on the founding—or, in his terms, on the Revolution, which he suggests lasted from 1750 to 1800—by telling us that he started out his career by adopting the outlook that was "all the rage" in his graduate school days, "that ideas shaped political behavior." But "over the years" he has "become convinced that political behavior usually owes more to economic considerations and that most people customarily embrace ideas that tally with their personal interests, especially their pecuniary considerations." He does not ignore all of the debates and clashes of ideas that figured so prominently in the Revolution and the founding, but he does constantly emphasize that the founders were practical politicians, "not the inhabitants of a philosophical ivory tower"; even James Madison, one of "the leading thinkers of his day," was not "a dispassionate ivory tower philosopher."

Although Ferling's insistently down-to-earth approach leads him to overlook the extent to which reason illuminated the founding, he does helpfully underscore the fact that reasoned debates are not the only interesting feature of America's early politics. Yet his accounts of the solid interests and cynical calculations of groups and politicians are sometimes contradictory. For example, we are told that people in general did not view the period before the adoption of the Constitution as an economically difficult ("critical") period—that was simply the view of a few powerful and wealthy people—but a few pages later we are reminded that "urban mechanics faced austerity," that "throngs of unskilled workers were confronted with frightening want and uncertainty," and that it was not just land speculators but also many less wealthy would-be settlers who longed for a government capable of persuading foreign governments to respect Americans' claims to western lands. We are invited to see the enactment of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's program of economic development as an example of "how an elite faction could make use of the national government, much as the most perceptive of the founders at the Philadelphia Convention must have intended"; but we are soon drawn to reflect on the fact that many farmers and city workers often supported Hamilton against Madison and Thomas Jefferson during the partisan quarrels of the 1790s. Despite Ferling's predilection for looking at politics as a class struggle, his historical reporting is accurate enough to undermine such a crude economic explanation of the politics of the Revolution and the founding.

This is not to deny that there is an element of truth in Ferling's old Progressive-style emphasis on the continuity of pro- and anti-democratic divisions from the Revolution of 1776 to the Revolution of 1800, with the more radical democrats of the Revolution being reincarnated in the Anti-Federalists and then in the Jeffersonian Republicans, and with Federalists continuing the more conservative Revolutionary line. The ideas supporting the American Revolution had democratic implications that some Americans were more reluctant to pursue than others. But, among other drawbacks, understanding the founding in this way, as a simple continuation of social and corresponding ideological divisions that appeared during the Revolution, underestimates the light that the founders and the political philosophers who preceded them brought to the subject of politics. It neglects the progress in the understanding of republican politics, from the assembling of the "common sense" of the Revolutionaries, to the state and federal constitution making of the 1770s and 1780s, to the initiation of partisan politics in the 1790s. "A Leap in the Dark" (we learn from Ferling's preface) is a phrase taken from an essay written in 1776 by an opponent of American independence, and it is too pessimistic to characterize the actions or the spirit of the American founders.

Why did Ferling drop the idea that ideas are everything, and adopt the at least equally doubtful idea that interests are everything? In previous books (e.g., Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America and A Wilderness of Miseries: War and Warriors in Early America), Ferling has written about America's early wars and warriors, and in this book—which gives us a particularly vivid account of the fights at Lexington and Concord—he often relates political decisions to their wartime contexts. Studying war does not necessarily mean abandoning ideas as historical explanations. Nor does it necessarily suggest that all political actions are selfish and cynical; on the contrary, war can bring out the best. For example, Ferling notes that when the Continental Congress was faced "with war and the most momentous choices," it turned away from lesser men and began to seek "leaders noted for prudence, honesty, fairness, imagination, acumen, and dedication." Nevertheless, Ferling's respect for the centrality of war may well be one reason he has come to focus less on ideas and more on other, more brutal facts of political life. Bearing in mind the uncertainties, hazards, burdens, and dictates of war can make the role of reason in politics seem very slight. He reminds us, for example, that in 1775, when the shooting war between Britain and the colonies began, 

no one had imagined the war would last for eight years. Nor did anyone expect that over 100,000 men…would serve in the Continental army. No one could have known that thousands more would bear arms, some repeatedly, in militia units, or that many would serve in America's nascent navy or ship out on risky privateering ventures. No one foresaw that countless women on the home front would spend incalculable hours making bullets and clothing for the soldiers. No one imagined the staggering burden that would fall on America's taxpayers. No one anticipated the economic changes brought on by the war and the despair and disillusionment that would result as the public debt rose and states teetered on the edge of bankruptcy….

But perhaps a deeper reason why Ferling has moved away from taking the reflections and reasoned choices that are evident in the founding as the main explanations and points of interest of those events can be found in his reaction against the "outlook" that he was exposed to in his graduate school days. This outlook (as he sees) was lopsidedly skewed towards ideas and away from more brutal interests. It also (this bothers him less, if he even notices it) failed, in spite of its fascination with ideas, to take these ideas very seriously, because it failed to ask whether any of these ideas were true, today as well as in the past. If ideas are studied as elements of "paradigms" that are part of a past that is another country, quite foreign to us even if we can succeed in understanding it in part, then the possible truth of these ideas and their relevance to us tend to become meaningless questions. Ferling rightly refuses to accept that America's revolutionary past is so distant from us. But he avoids accepting this view of the past as a completely foreign country by looking away from political ideas, and by turning his attention to the less high-minded ways in which past and present politics resemble each other. He is, he says, "struck by the profound similarities in the politics and political practices of then and now": specifically, he finds the opportunism, disingenuousness, deceptiveness, and general nastiness of past politicians to be "surprisingly" but somehow reassuringly "modern." In other words, politicians then were every bit as mean and nasty as politicians today!

Ferling's downgrading of political thought does not always prevent him from seeing and describing the importance of what he calls the Revolution's "ideology" of human rights. He recognizes that the Declaration of Independence "articulated what many activists must have felt as they participated in trade embargoes, or acted outside the law in city streets, or now as they bore arms on bloodstained battlefields." Moreover: "Through the Declaration of Independence, the goal the new nation set for itself was the salvation and spread of human rights."

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But we get too little sense from this book that the "Struggle to Create the American Republic" was an effort of mind as well as of body and spirit. Perhaps because Ferling takes political thought even less seriously than he used to, and evidently because he always wants us to sympathize with American "radicals" (enthusiastic democrats) against American "conservatives" (more hesitant democrats and anti-democrats), he is not a very reliable guide to the founders' debates about basic political principles and institutions. For example, he asserts that Pennsylvania, with its "radical" Constitution of 1776, "came closer than any other state during the American Revolution to truly embracing the egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence…." Apart from this very questionable judgment (Ferling himself gives reasons for questioning it when he remembers the Declaration's primary concern with protecting human rights), he offers no further account of the states' constitution-making, that great learning process that was not a "Leap in the Dark" so much as a remarkable illustration of enlightened statecraft in dark days.

When it comes to the constitution-making of 1787, Ferling grasps the clever tactics of the proponents of the new federal Constitution, but not their advances in constitutional thinking, their improved political science of republican government. He notes but (like the Anti-Federalists) fails to appreciate the significance of the fact that what the Constitutional Convention produced was not a wholly national government, but a hitherto unknown species of government, partly federal and partly national. He takes no notice of the republican but energetic executive power established by the Convention's creation of the presidency. He describes the Constitution —along with Madison's "most original thought," the argument favoring a large republic—as a complicated and anti-democratic way of thwarting any substantial future changes in government policy (whether just or unjust). This deadlock-of-democracy interpretation of the Constitution is in sharp contrast to Madison's understanding, stated in The Federalist, according to which the advantage of the large republic is said to reside not in the greater difficulty of every "coalition of a majority" taking place, but in the greater difficulty of a majority coalition taking place "on any other principles than those of justice and the general good."

Ferling devotes the last third of this book to the partisan divisions of the 1790s. Although in the end he is too trusting and mistakes the mollifying tone of Jefferson's First Inaugural Address as an indication that the Republicans in power would be less partisan than the Federalists, he can and does find in the history of the 1790s plenty of evidence that American politics can be mean. However, he again fails to see the progress of the science of government, through the growth in the understanding of how republican government can be expected to work in a way that resolves principled partisan conflicts by peaceful means.

Political movements have bodies as well as minds, and although civilized politics depends on reason having some sway, it would be utopian to assume that reason could ever be completely in charge of things. Nevertheless, Alexander Hamilton—surely no utopian—was not being unreasonable when in the first lines of The Federalist he suggested that "reflection and choice" might prove to be at least as important as "accident and force" in the American founding.