Book Review: Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It by John Ferling (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015)
Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It is John Ferling’s most concise analysis of the American Revolutionary War. In many ways it feels like his final attempt to describe the most important events, relevant political and philosophical issues, and people active during this period in American history. The footnotes are replete with references to his previous works, including Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America, The First of Men: A life of George Washington, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the American Revolution, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, and others. He has boiled down a lifetime of research and findings into a succinct description of the period between 1763 and 1783 in the American colonies and England, as it pertains to The American Revolution.
Ferling makes clear in the preface that the focus of Whirlwind is the war fought during the American Revolution. By marking the Treaty of Paris in 1783 as the end of the Revolution, he stresses the importance of the war itself. Many historians have a quixotic perspective of the American Revolution as primarily a philosophical one. Ferling explains that many like to argue that the Revolution ended in 1789 with the ratification of the Constitution or in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson was elected and power peacefully passed from one ruling faction to another for the first time. The most iconic paintings of the American revolutionary period are even void of violence, such as John Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence and Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Ferling however, would have us remember that the Revolution was violent and tragically intimate. The fighting in the colonies was the most important catalyst in the radicalization of the American colonists. Leading figures like John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson were heavily influenced by the writings of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers and land holders, and merchants such as George Washington and John Hancock were spurred to revolt by their respective economic interests; but the average colonists might never have considered going to war with England had they not seen Redcoats spilling the blood of their fellow Americans. The ideas of philosophers and words of orators provided inspiration and direction, but the perceived British violent aggression spurred the colonists to armed revolt.
The book flows chronologically from the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 to the Treaty of Paris in 1783. By 1763 it had become clear to officials in the British government as well as those in the aristocracy and merchant class that the American colonies were of vital importance to the British Empire’s continued prosperity. About one third of England’s trade, both imports and exports, were with the colonies. This spurred resentment; the realization that the economic development of the colonies, particularly in the New England region, rivaled that of England led to deep seeded insecurities among the British elite. On top of all of this, the British government accumulated an astronomical debt fighting the Seven Years War and the American colonies had to be included in the ongoing plan to pay down this debt. Once the British Ministry and Parliament decided that they must reassert control over the commerce of the colonies, what followed were a slew of legislative acts by Parliament between 1763 and 1774 including the Sugar Act, and most infamously the Stamp Act.
To give the reader a better sense of the chasm developing between American colonists and Britons at the time Parliament felt the need to act, Ferling provides a social analysis of the difference in speech patterns being noticed at the time. He explains that a different dialect had developed in America, “…the colonists alluded to ‘cribs,’ ‘bullfrogs,’ or being ‘bamboozled,’ terms that did not resonate with those in the old county… In Massachusetts the word ‘daughter’ came out as ‘darter,’ while in Virginia ‘first’ might be pronounced as ‘fuust’ or ‘hold’ as ‘holt’” (page 13). Words had even taken on new meanings in America. “A ‘pie’ to an Englishman was a meat pie, but to a colonist it was a fruit pie,” (page 13). With this in depth analysis of American society John Ferling makes it clear to the reader why the British ministry and Parliament felt it necessary to reassert their authority over the colonies, and he also incorporates the rich history that gets many amateur historians excited. In this particular instance he relies upon Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty. He draws from the works of several other historians when delving into ancillary developments occurring in the American Colonies during the Revolution, including Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery when he discusses the growing scrutiny of slavery among the colonists and Howard Peckham’s The Toll of Independence: Engagements and Battle Casualties of the American Revolution when describing the hardships faced by soldiers in the Continental Army. But Ferling also provides original analysis such as when he draws from Abigail Adam’s letters to her husband John when discussing the war’s influence on women. The burdens of the war fell on both of the sexes and this could have encouraged the growing sense of self-worth and desire for equality among the women in America. “Remember the Ladies,” Abigail wrote to John, beseeching him to work for laws that moderate the power husbands have over their wives.
John Ferling repeatedly stresses the economic impetus for the outbreak of the Revolutionary War on both sides of the Atlantic. Parliament’s actions infuriated the American colonists because of the impact on their livelihoods. The political and philosophical implications weren’t lost on educated men like John Adams, John Dickinson, and James Otis who were critical of the British government for imposing taxes on the colonists while the colonies were not represented in Parliament; they felt that this violated their rights as Englishmen as guaranteed in the original charters. But the colonists were stirred to action by the economic impact of taxes levied and trade regulation being enforced stringently. Ferling expounds on the ostensible contradiction presented by the colonists’ reaction to the Tea Act. The Tea Act actually lowered the import tax levied on English Tea imported into the colonies, but a vast smuggling network had already developed in the colonies and by the time the Tea Act was imposed smugglers were reaping large profits from selling illicit Dutch Tea in the colonies. By making English tea cheaper Parliament threatened the livelihood of many “merchants” and in reaction these traders took advantage of the fomenting anger among the masses and organized protests that eventually led to the infamous Boston Tea Party.
Once the fighting breaks out, John Ferling’s book unfolds linearly from Lexington common, to Horatio Gate’s victory over Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, to England’s strategic focus shifting towards the southern American colonies beginning with the capture of Savanah, to the subsequent surrender of Charleston by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to Sir Henry Clinton, and finally the battle of Yorktown where Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered to the combined American and French forces led by Gen. George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau. While connecting the dots between the most vital military engagements of the Revolutionary War Ferling describes lesser known battles of significant strategic importance, such as the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by an American force led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, which preserved access to the Hudson River for the Americans, and the Battle of the Great Bridge, where the Royal Governor Dunmore and his Royal Ethiopian Regiment from Virginia were defeated once and for all. Ferling is able to describe the battles in a vivid and exciting manner that adds an element of suspense not found in many history books. After setting the stage for the Battle of Camden, where the British Gen. Cornwallis faced off against Gen. Horatio Gates and a rebel army comprised of a significant amount of militiamen. Ferling puts the reader in the battle in order to make clear why Gates suffered an embarrassing defeat: “The engagement opened when Gates ordered the militia to attack…They advanced timidly and confusedly…the sight of the advancing enemy soldiers – their bayonets gleaming in the day’s early sunlight, the sound of the redcoats loudly chanting traditional battle huzzahs…was too much for inexperienced troops. The American left, the militia line, collapsed” (pages 265-6).
John Ferling is able to remain focused on the most important military theaters of the war at a given time period, while incorporating important developments throughout the colonies, ancillary and often incidental facts and actions of key figures of the Revolution and the corresponding political storyline unfolding in England, without confusing the reader for one instant. He masterfully deals with the time lapse created by the slow transportation and communication over the Atlantic in the eighteenth century, a dynamic that many historians fail to transcend in their writing.
The author’s passion for The American Revolution is never more apparent than when he writes of the philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution. I was personally moved by his adoration for the Declaration of Independence, its author, and most importantly the underlying messages. John Ferling writes that, “With peerless eloquence – and in simple and uncluttered language – Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence glided effortlessly, like a vessel on placid water…he was a penman with a genius for the cadence of the written word, a writer conversant with music” (page 161). “That is one reason why the document was read by successive generations, and is still read today,” Ferling states, but more importantly “Like Paine before him, Jefferson evoked the colonists’ pain, disappointment, reproach, sense of betrayal, and anger. More important, he embraced the hope and expectations that had swelled in the hearts and minds of the colonists by 1776, including the widespread desire for a more egalitarian society” (page 161).
Ferling writes about the American Revolution effortlessly. A lifetime of scholarship and immersion in the writings of contemporaries and historians alike has made him the most fluent author on the subject. The ability of Ferling to incorporate a prodigious amount of facts about relevant people, battles, documents, and events while maintaining a focused storyline is what makes Whirlwind a brilliantly written book. Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It will be a commercial success like Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation was before it due to the author’s ability to explain the American Revolution, including the major political, military, and social developments that it entailed, all in a concise manner that can be read by lovers of novels as easily as lovers of history.
Nearly everything Ferling writes sounds little more than a variation of one of his previous book.
If Ferling really believes that Washington and Hancock were spurred by merely economic motives, he has learned very little in his study of American history. Committing treason and making their lives and property forfeit to the most powerful empire on earth certainly weren’t in their best economic interests from the view of an 18th century colonist. Playing ball like Hutchinson would have been a far easier route. Similarly, the men at Lexington and Concord, and at Bunker Hill were already fighting and dying. That upsets Ferling’s notion that it was because the British were fighting that the average colonist decided to resist. Against whom were the British fighting before the average colonist became radicalized by the fighting.
The concision with which Ferling is able to explain complex issues is best explained by what sounds to me his preference for simplistic, one dimensional answers.
You would get a better sense of what motivated these men in one slim volume of Edmund Morgan (The Meaning of Independence) than from the works of John Ferling.
Thank you for a compelling review and good luck at law school where your enjoyment of the Revolutionary period will be further enhanced and inspired. At first, when I saw this book I thought it would be a redux of Almost a Miracle. Having read this piece I will definitely put this on my ‘buy’ list. It’s reviews like this one, written by informed and enthusiastic scholars, that make JAR a helpful guide for avid readers on the era.
You may have rated Ferling’s Whirlwind a 9.0, but your review is a perfect 10. I do not read many Revolutionary War books dealing with the overall American war–being comfortable with Francis Marion and South Carolina–but certainly will read this one, because of your review.
This is a wonderful review of what certainly looks like a wonderful book, one which I will definitely purchase. However, as I read it, I kept looking for some discussion to the fact that the Revolution was, at its most basic level, a revolution directed at western concepts of law. Unfortunately, other than the Declaration that is mentioned, which was itself a specific refutation of British conscripts, there does not appear to be any reference and in that regard I may be disappointed to some degree.
Note that one of the very first things the Continental Congress did after Lexington and naming Washington as commander in chief was to create a body of law to deal with the military, direct every state to pass laws relating to treason, and to consider creating their own constitutions. There was essentially no law to allow the courts to function (they were in abeyance virtually the entire war) and without that they had nothing on which to base the rest of their revolutionary principles.
Yes, it was an economic contest, as the review relates, but even more importantly, it was to reject British interpretations of law and to adopt alternatives that then allowed for the rise of federalism. In that vein, I tend to think that the Tea Act and its impact on merchants’ profits had less to do with the protests than did the fundamental differences the colonists had with the British over their access to the basic rights that Englishmen in England had. To ignore the critical role of the law at this time is to miss a fundamental reason for the split.
Regardless, thank you for the review as, despite the absence of a legal perspective, it looks well worth purchasing.
I just wanted to add that I share others’ view of this review. It really does a great job in explaining the book and gave me a sense of what it was about, where it fits into the extant literature and whether I’d want to read it. That’s exactly what a good review should do, so many thanks for this great piece.
May I ask how Whirlwind differ from Almost a Miracle?
My favorite Revolutionary book of the summer. My favorite history author…period.