SETTING THE WORLD ABLAZE: WASHINGTON, ADAMS, AND JEFFERSON AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, by John Ferling, Oxford University Press, 372 pages, $27.50.
I remember reading, long ago, about an incident involving George Washington and some rather indiscrete advances he made to another man’s wife. It’s not the kind of image that immediately jumps to mind when mention is made of the Father of Our Country, but of course history has a way of exaggerating the virtues of its heroes and turning a blind eye to their flaws.
John Ferling provides a more balanced and insightful portrait of three men who shared the stage during one of the most dramatic periods in history–the rebellion of the American colonies against Great Britain. Ferling compares and contrasts Washington with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and in so doing provides an interesting case study of the factors that enable a few remarkable men to ride the tide of history and, ultimately, to shape it.
His comparison yields several interesting similarities in the lives of the three most renowned personalities of the American Revolution–unusual relationships with their families during their formative years, driving ambition that often bordered on egoism, and perhaps most interestingly, very common weaknesses. We see Washington overcome by jealousy at the success of a fellow general and provoked to rashness in an effort to add luster to his own reputation. Adams, reluctant to antagonize royal authorities with whom he might still have to deal if the dispute over British tax policies was resolved amicably, tried desperately to keep a foot in both camps long after other patriots had resigned themselves to the inevitable separation. And Jefferson, tempted by the comforts of his new home and a loving wife, largely abandoned the cause shortly after writing the Declaration of Independence, leaving it to others to back up his glorious words by force of arms and diplomatic finesse.
At the same time, each of these men contributed something vital to the Revolution; without any one of them it might not have succeeded. In the words of a nineteenth-century commentator, Washington was the sword of the Revolution, Adams the tongue, and Jefferson the pen. Ferling rightly points out that the war was won by thousands of soldiers in the field, and no less by an even greater number of wives and mothers and daughters back home who bore the personal sacrifice of long separations from their loved ones, but that all of these people needed the sense of direction that was provided most notably by these three extraordinary men.
BRUCE HEYDT is managing editor of British Heritage magazine and the author of several articles on American and British history and travel.
Talking with John Ferling