Reading Opinion Essay: John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Reading Ferling’s A Leap in the Dark was, for me, a little like eating an MRE, or Meal, Ready-to-Eat, the American military’s modern ration. An MRE is nutritionally complete and very filling, containing several thousand calories, but the flavor leaves a lot to be desired. In much the same way, A Leap in the Dark was very informative, obviously meticulously researched, and flowed in a logical and chronological order, but I spent much of my time with it feeling as if I was trying to choke down an extremely dry MRE cracker. Ferling’s prose was certainly well-crafted and eminently serviceable, but it lacked a sense of color and humanity. I recently watched a rebroadcast of The Learning Channel’s documentary The Revolutionary War, a series that featured Ferling as a commentator throughout. The historian spoke carefully and meticulously, in even and measured cadences, and the result was a relatively stale monotone that was at odds with the high human drama of the American Revolution. As it turned out, Ferling’s writing style was much like his speaking style, with one leaving the reader and the other the viewer with plenty of information about the subject but little or no emotional connection. I was not able to read very many pages of A Leap in the Dark at any one time, since the arid tediousness of the prose caused my mind to wander. Consequently, I found myself consuming the book in fairly small bites.

I recently read several works by Joseph J. Ellis and Gordon S. Wood, and their prose was much more lively and entertaining. While books such as The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, and His Excellency: George Washington did not attempt to cover the same enormous sweep of history that Ferling wrote about in A Leap in the Dark, Ellis and Wood did a much better job of capturing the humanity of the Founding Fathers and communicating to the reader the drama of the period.[1] The fact that Ferling is a professor of history and was writing for a more academic audience should not be an excuse. Ellis and Wood are distinguished scholars in their own right, and they found a way to combine rigorous academic research protocols with lively and engaging prose.

One thing that I thought Ferling excelled at was his ability to write about the people and events of the Revolutionary era in a detached and non-biased manner. It may have been that very detachment which caused me to find the narrative dull and lifeless, but the manner in which Ferling balanced the competing views of the various participants was very impressive to me. His approach seemed to be one of fully investing himself in the outlook and philosophy of one faction, apparently endorsing that viewpoint, and then later doing the same with the opposition’s outlook. For example, Ferling’s description of Hamilton’s economic policies led me to believe that the author wholeheartedly agreed with the first Secretary of the Treasury. Ferling applauded Hamilton’s brilliant foresight in establishing a modern capitalist economic system, and seemed to fully embrace Hamilton’s approach.[2] Just a few pages later, however, Ferling began writing from the point of view of Jefferson and Madison as they reacted to Hamilton’s overreaching.[3] The result was one in which Ferling apparently endorsed both sides, and neither, thereby giving me a full picture of the issues at stake and allowing me to draw my own conclusions. This is a technique that I may attempt to use in my own future efforts to avoid bias in my writing.

One minor issue I had with the text itself was the surprising number of editorial mistakes. On several occasions I noticed sentences either missing a word or containing an extra word, and in at least one instance I came across a misused homonym. Additionally, there were several lines of text simply missing at the bottom of page two hundred thirty-three, though this was probably more of a printing mistake than an editorial oversight. While I could use context to work my way around extra or missing words, or an incorrect homonym, I had no idea what Ferling intended to say in that brief section of missing text. While these are admittedly minor problems, it was nonetheless surprising to me that a book published by an entity as prestigious as the Oxford University Press should contain so many such errors.

Returning to my original analogy, I will say that I am certainly more full of knowledge about the Revolutionary era than I was before I began choking down Ferling’s dusty prose. Though I found the lighter fare of Ellis and Wood more delicious, A Leap in the Dark provided me with a heavy platter of information that I did not possess before. I learned a lot about the Revolutionary War and the decades immediately before and after, and I learned a little about things to look for in the work of other historians and myself. I just wish I had not been forced to take such small bites.

[1] Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Press, 2004); Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001); Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Vintage Books, 2004).

[2] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 317-20.

[3] Ibid., 334-41.


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