John Ferling: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Ferling, JohnThroughout 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 2 of my interview of John.

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Whirlwind-1Morris: When and why did you decide to write Whirlwind?

Ferling: I taught a course on the American Revolution about thirty times during my career and each time I vowed to someday write my own version of the Revolution. I felt that economic factors were of paramount importance in provoking the colonial rebellion, something that few historians during the past forty or so years stressed. In addition, it was a rare history of the American Revolution that devoted much attention to the War of Independence. About all of Whirlwind deals with the coming of the Revolution and the changes it wrought, and the other half treats the war. My book was a long time coming, however, because there were always other things that I also wanted to write.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

No, I had “lived” with the Revolution throughout a forty- year writing and teaching career, during which my views gradually took shape. They did not change substantially while writing Whirlwind. I wouldn’t say that it was a “revelation,” but in the course of writing the book I came to a greater appreciation of the travail that Washington faced and the difficult choices he had to make as commander of the army.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Ferling: I started with the intention of almost exclusively emphasizing the role of economics in the coming of the Revolution, but in the course of researching and writing the book I came to see that the colonists’ desire for greater autonomy – which obviously was tinged with economic incentives for some – was of crucial importance. I struggled too (I hope successfully) to integrate the Whig ideology with the economic interests of the insurgents, something I had not envisaged doing at the outset of my work on the book.

Morris: To what does the title refer?

Ferling: The title Whirlwind was taken from descriptions left by Abigail Adams and John Adams of the events of revolution and war swirling around them. When disease spread from the armies in the siege of Boston in 1775 out into the nearby hamlets, Abigail Adams – who resided in Braintree — briefly questioned the colonists’ wisdom at having embarked on this “Whirlwind.” Six months later, during the final, tempestuous weeks in Congress before the decision was made to declare independence, John Adams wrote his wife that judgment and courage were required “to ride in this Whirlwind.” As two individuals who experienced the war and Revolution saw it as a “whirlwind” of trauma and dangers, I thought that entitling the book “Whirlwind” was appropriate. Besides, the Anglo-American troubles spawned a vortex that swept up everyone and nearly everything in the America of that day.

Morris: During an interview that appeared in the Journal of the American Revolution, you observe, “With all the mistakes, maybe the biggest mystery of the war is how anyone won.”

Ferling: This long war, as is true of most protracted wars, had many turning points. Had the British put more troops in America, as General Gage urged, it might have crushed the insurgency in 1775. Britain could have, and should have won the war in 1776, and it might still have won the war in 1777, but flawed strategic choices and poor generalship destroyed the chances.

Most say that once France entered the war, America’s victory was assured, but I don’t think so. In fact, Britain came perilously close to fighting the war to a stalemate in 1781, an eventuality that would have led to the war being settled by an international conference, an outcome that John Adams once said was his greatest fear. Adams knew that a conference of European monarchical powers would not be generous toward republican America. Britain would have retained a part of its pre-war empire. If the United States existed at all, it would have been small and weak. Adams also suspected – probably correctly – that France would accept such terms in order to make an “honorable” exit from hostilities. The American insurgents would have had no choice but to accept the terms that were offered.

Washington made numerous mistakes, none bigger in my estimation than allowing a period of inactivity from June 1778 onward deep into 1781. It was a time when, as Thomas Paine later wrote, Washington “slept in the field” while Generals Greene and Gates scored crucial victories. Washington’s inactivity almost led America to a ruinous end, the negotiated settlement mentioned earlier. Washington so obsessed over New York that he could not see other strategic possibilities. Fortunately for him, General Rochambeau could and did see an alternative in Virginia.

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To read all of Part 2, please click here.

To read Part 1 of my interview of John, please click here.

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

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