John Ferling knows perfectly well that he is guilty of a certain degree of non-conformity in selecting three “dead white males” as the subject of his latest book. He confesses to being something of a counter-revolutionary by ignoring the popular trend among historians of focusing on the common man–or increasingly, woman–in favor of studying the impact of famous aristocrats. He believes that a need exists to “get back to the more traditional history and raise the kind of traditional questions that historians were once raising” about the role of great leaders in the shaping of history.

His answers to some of those questions, though, lean toward the non-traditional. He believes that the man least revered among the three subjects of his study deserves the greatest accolades. “Altogether I think Adams made a contribution to the Revolution that subsequent generations really lost sight of.” In contrast, Jefferson, hailed for his writing, was less inspiring as governor of his home state, and Ferling concludes that, “he was someone who functioned well in committees, but he was ill-suited for a position as chief executive. He just couldn’t cope.”

Washington, too, had limited military success but possessed talents that helped him to overcome his flaws. “What I tried to do is see them as flesh-and-blood people who were prone to make mistakes, and not be a hagiographer,” Ferling explains. But neither is he an iconoclast, and he is quick to add, “Each of them failed in some respect but succeeded in others.”

BRUCE HEYDT is managing editor of British Heritage magazine and the author of several articles on American and British history and travel.