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September/October 2004 Historically Speaking 19 An Interview with John Ferling JOHN FERLING, professor emeritus ofhistory at the State University ofWest Georgia (he retired in May 2004), has written extensively on the political and military history ofearly America. Among his works are A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford University Press, 2003); A Wilderness ofMiseries: War and Warriors in Early America (GreenwoodPress, 1980); andStruggle for a Continent: The Wars ofEarly America (Harlan Davidson, 1993). An accomplished biographer, Ferling has written lives ofGeorge Washington, John Adams, and the Pennsylvania LoyalistJoseph Galloway, as well as Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2000). His most recent work is thejustpublishedAdams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, part of Oxford University Press's Pivotal Moments in American History series. Joseph Lucas hadtheprivilege ofinterviewing this prolificstudent ofearly American history in April of2004. Ferling reveals that hispredilectionfor writing about war, politics, and great leaders stemmedpartlyfrom expediency. Yet Ferling also passionately believes that these classicsubjects continue to matter, and their histories have much to teach us today. Joseph Lucas: During your long and productive career you have bucked several ofthe trends that have defined your generation of historians. You have focused on elite leaders rather than marginalized masses. Your primary concerns are political and military history rather than social and cultural history. And you see the past not as a foreign country but as intimately connected to the present. Indeed, you argue that the past, particularly with regard to political and military leadership, holds important lessons for us today. How do you account for your iconoclastic views? And how do you see your work in relation to that ofyour peers and colleagues? John Ferling: Well, for many years I had a poster over my desk, and it contained a quote from Thoreau about marching to a different John Ferling drummer. So maybe I am iconoclastic. But I don't think so. I think I've wound up doing what I've done out of necessity because of where I teach. It just seems the pragmatic thing to do. I don't teach at a major research university, and I don't have a research library at my disposal. So I've chosen to work with the resources available to me on a daily basis. We have things like the modern editions of the Washington papers, Franklin papers, Hamilton papers, Adams papers, and so forth. That was the direction that I went simply because the material was there and available to me. As a result, I think, most of my work has been on political and military history. When I was finishing graduate school, I had a one-year appointment at a school just outside ofPhiladelphia in Chester County. I was very much interested in abolitionism, and there was a wonderful library ofabolitionist materials in Chester County, maybe five minutes from where I was living. Ifthat had materialized into permanent, tenuretrack employment, I would have probably worked on the history ofantislavery. I do think there are lessons from the past: political lessons and military lessons as well. I'm struck by the fact, for example, thatJefferson wrote a letter toJohn Adams in 1813 stating that all through history, in every society at every time, one party existed that favored the many while another party existed that favored the few, and political battles tended to revolve around that struggle between the many and the few. And that's how I see American politics. I see that struggle going on in the Revolution. I see that struggle going on between the Federalists and the Democratic Republican Party in the 1790s and the early days ofthe republic. I see it through most of the 19th and 20th centuries in America's political history as well. Lucas: Are there other important lessons from the era of the American Revolution and the early republic? Ferling: I think there are. The American Revolution , for example, can tell us a great deal about the limits ofmilitary power. Look at the relative strength of Great Britain and the colonies in 1775—it seemed as if there was no way that the colonists...


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