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Book Review: Whirlwind

By (May 16, 2015) No Comment

Whirlwind:whirlwind cover

The American Revolution and the War That Won It

by John Ferling

Bloomsbury Press, 2015

John Ferling, the great biographer of John Adams and George Washington, the dean of American Revolutionary studies, strikes an ominous note at the beginning of his rousing, magisterial new book Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It. He’s in the process of offering readers a quick sketch of the tensions and inequalities of the American colonies on the brink of revolution when gradually his descriptions start to sound disarmingly familiar:

Our current federal office-holders may be more unpopular at home than British officials were with the colonists in 1776; in fact, two notable Revolutionary-era British officials, William Pitt and Edmund Burke, may have been more well liked by colonists than any current official is by today’s citizenry. America appears to some to be under the sway of a plutocracy at the moment, much as England was in the eighteenth century. Money now so dominates politics and politicians that some Americans wonder whether they are citizens or subjects, much as many colonists wondered at the time of the American Revolution.

In many ways, this is signpost Ferling: the immediacy, the natural instructor’s instinct for making the past feel present, and perhaps the penchant for dramatics necessary to keep the back rows from nodding off before the class bell rings. It’s a winning combination of erudition and popular history, and it’s distilled to a fine essence in Whirlwind, which covers some exceedingly familiar subject matter without ever once feeling derivative or shopworn. Quite the opposite: by consulting a wide variety of contemporary sources (including that blathering old fraud Joseph Plum Martin, whose garrulous little memoir of being a Continental lazybones has become a staple of such accounts ever since he was portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the great 1997 PBS documentary Liberty!), Ferling is able to infuse even the best-known personalities and battles of the Revolution with immediacy, as in his account of a tense moment during the Second Battle of Trenton in 1777:

Washington’s strategy worked. Only an hour of daylight remained when Cornwallis at last reached the Assunpink. To get to Washington, Cornwallis’s men ha to first cross the creek. They never made it. Cornwallis ordered an assault, then another by his shock troops. The regulars struggled valiantly in the fact of the murderous fire poured down on them. An American soldier, looking down in disbelief on a creek whose crystal blue water had turned a ghastly red and on a bridge and creek bank that were littered with bodies, called it a “great Slaughter.” As night stole over the region, the fighting ended. Already, nearly five hundred of Cornwallis’s men had been killed or wounded. Cornwallis did not despair. Washington was trapped. “We’ve got the Old Fox save now. We’ll go over and bag him in the morning,” he allegedly predicted.

A certain amount of boilerplate prose is virtually a requirement of narrative American Revolution histories that are hoping for Spring and Summer customers, and although Whirlwind is refreshingly complex, Ferling is too old a hand at this to skip this particular hosting duty, laying it on a bit thick in his book’s final act:

One can reckon up these political and social changes, though doing so fails to capture what a novelty the new United States was in the immediate postwar world. But those who lived in Revolutionary America understood. They were aware that they had achieved more than simply breaking away from Great Britain. They recognize that they had brought into being a new-model experimental polity – a nation in which power was thought to flow up from the people, a dynamic unlike anything the world had seen … The great promise of America was that it really had begun the world anew.

Some variation on that ‘begin the world anew’ shows up in virtually every book on this subject, regardless of how deeply confusing it would have been to the eighteenth century inhabitants of, say, China, or England, or indeed most of North America – but it’s easy enough to take Ferling’s larger point, especially when this particular book is so good. If it’s still stacked on bookstore front table come the 4th of July, the more bookish tourists to Boston and Philadelphia will have a serious treat in store.