John Ferling: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Ferling1Throughout his long career, historian John Ferling has specialized in the American Revolution. He taught numerous courses on the Revolution, America’s Founders, and U. S. military history. He is the author of thirteen books, the latest of which is Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (2015). His other books include biographies of Washington and John Adams, and a history of the Revolutionary War, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (2007). Here is a portion of the brief autobiographical statement that appears on his website.

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My parents were from the same small town in West Virginia. My mom graduated from West Liberty State College and taught elementary school for several years. My dad briefly attended the same college, but dropped out during the Great Depression. He eventually found work with Union Carbide and continued to work for the company for 40 years.

I was their only child and when I was one year old my father was transferred to Texas City, Texas, and that is where I grew up. I graduated from Sam Houston State University with a BA degree in history in 1961. Later, I received an MA from Baylor University and a Ph.D. from West Virginia University.

Early on I taught in Texas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, but I spent most of my career at the University of West Georgia in suburban Atlanta. I retired from teaching after a forty-year career.

I was always interested in writing. As a kid, I devoured the sports section of the Houston Post, as much interested in the writing as in the scores. In college, I discovered good books written by good historians and decided that I wanted to become a historian and to write history.

I still love sports, however, especially baseball, and I have been a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

My wife, Carol, and I live in metropolitan Atlanta.

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Here is an excerpt from Part 1 of my interview of John.

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Morris: Before discussing your latest book, Whirlwind, and other works, here are a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Ferling: My parents. My mom was a teacher who understood the value of education, while my dad taught me the value of hard work, diligence, and listening to my teachers.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Ferling: I came out of graduate school well prepared for a career as a professional historian. West Virginia University had a small graduate program in the 1960s, but it was excellent for my needs. The faculty took its teaching responsibilities seriously and made time for the students, but they were historians as well and all were actively engaged in research. Three professors had a profound impact on me. Kurt Rosenbaum, who was a German and European diplomatic historian, provided crucial guidance in my development as a critical thinker. William Barnes, an American historian and economic determinist, helped to shape my outlook. My mentor, Elizabeth Cometti, who specialized in early America, was important in my development as a researcher and writer.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Ferling: I started college with an interest in history, but found my courses to be so boring that I decided not to pursue it. Fortunately, in the last required course that I had to take, a Western Civilization class during my sophomore year, I took Dr. William Painter. He didn’t lecture. Instead, he had us read assigned books, which we discussed in class. I found it to be an electrifying experience, one that for me opened an entirely new way of thinking about and studying history. By the end of that semester I knew that I wanted to teach history in college and to write history.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Ferling: College was pivotal for me. It broadened my horizons, taught me to think and question, and introduced me to many things — such as art and classical music — that had not previously been part of my life. I went to college thinking that I might teach history in high school or that I might seek a career in the retail industry, probably working for a department store, something I had done during the holidays while in high school. I came out of college with plans to do something that had never crossed my mind four years earlier.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Ferling: My dad graduated from high school just as the Stock Market crashed in 1929. His advice to me was to never risk investing my money in anything aside from U.S. savings bonds. When I went to work following graduate school I was thirty-one years old and penniless, so I couldn’t immediately invest anything. In time, things stabilized, but as I knew little about business or the stock market, I invested mostly in mutual funds and certificates of deposit. Sometimes, I wish I had taken the time to learn more about investing.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes an especially event, development, or period in history? Please explain.

Ferling: Two movies – The Thin Red Line and Paths of Glory. Neither romanticizes war and the latter, while dealing with an army, demonstrates the terrible ruthlessness to which those in power will resort in order to maintain their control of power.

Morris: From which other history book have you learned the most valuable lessons about studying history? Please explain.

Ferling: As a professional historian, I have read so many works of history over the past fifty years that it is difficult to pick a handful. But here goes. Alan Bullock’s Hitler, which I read while an undergraduate, demonstrated the means by which evil can come to power and how it is possible to carry out the most grotesque malevolence on a mass scale. Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution provided a wonderful lesson in how ideas can shape behavior. Bruce Catton’s many books on the Civil War — which I read while a young student — James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, and David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride and Washington’s Crossing were so gracefully and provocatively written that they influenced me as a writer.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Ferling: I think leadership comes from the top down, but a great leader knows when the time is right to act, and leadership involves the ability to mobilize and galvanize the people, and to inspire the people to follow.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Ferling: An effective strategy almost always involves both doing something and not doing something, and knowing when to choose the right alternative. To succeed, the strategy that is chosen ultimately depends on the acquisition of as much information as possible.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Ferling: Almost always true, though I would add that what was once a dangerous idea can become dangerous yet again when, after becoming orthodoxy, it becomes harmful and needs to be replaced with another “dangerous” idea.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Ferling: So true. If only Jefferson, who thought slavery abominable, had acted with greater courage to destroy the institution.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Ferling: I spent an incredible amount of time during my teaching career serving on committees. I now regard the lion’s share of the time spent in committee work as having been wasted. One of the great lessons learned by those who achieve is how to manage time.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Ferling: Ultimately, someone has to make the final decision, but the wise leader gathers information and seeks counsel – after deciding who among those surrounding him provides consistently wise advice – before making that final decision.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Ferling: This might be correct for companies, but as a historian who has spent a career writing about military and political leaders, my sense is those individuals do not have the luxury of making mistakes. That said, no one profited more from his mistakes more than did than George Washington. As a young commander of Virginia’s army in the French and Indian War, he made one mistake after another, leading to open criticism of his leadership and character in the colony’s only newspaper. Washington took the criticism to heart and did not make the same errors during the War of Independence.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Whirlwind-1Ferling: Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Jefferson, FDR, and Martin Luther King were not great storytellers, but, as I indicate in Whirlwind, they did alright as leaders.

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To read all of Part 1, please click here.

John cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website by clicking here.

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