Tuesday, January 13, 2015

7 Questions With Author John Ferling

From 1971-2004, Dr. John Ferling served on the faculty of the University of West Georgia. He has written twelve books on the era of America’s founding and Revolutionary War, including biographies of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.   In 2007 the American Revolution Roundtable of New York presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Since his retirement, he continues to be an active leader in the cultural and educational sectors of West Georgia.  His website is http://johnferling.com/


 1.       How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

When I was in high school I saw a documentary film on the rise and fall of Hitler. I had never had the slightest interest in history previously, but the film left me filled with questions and the next morning I went to the library for the first time in my life without having been made to go. I began reading about Hitler. My reading gradually morphed into books on World War II and FDR.  I decided to major in history in college, with the expectation of teaching in high school. But I hated my introductory history courses. They were mind-numbing memorization courses and I was counting the days until I completed them in my sophomore year and would never again have to take a history course. Two weeks into my last required course, however, the professor fell ill and a young, freshly-minted Ph.D. named William Painter was sent in to teach the class. He tore up his predecessor’s syllabus and told us to purchase a half dozen paperbacks that he specified, and he told us that he didn’t lecture. We would read 50-75 pages in a book for the next class and we would discuss what we had read. I suddenly found my history class to be an electrifying experience. I was learning a lot and going to the library on my own to read more deeply about things that we had discussed in class. Before the semester ended I had decided that I wanted to go to grad school, teach history in college, and write history. I told that story to my editor, who had me relate it in the preface to my book Setting the World Ablaze. Another of Dr. Painter’s former students, who was teaching at a college in North Carolina, read the book and contacted Dr. Painter, who wrote me. We began a correspondence that lasted until his death a few years later. I wish I could remember the five or six books that he had us purchase. I do recall that one was Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Although it was the best biography available, I had not encountered it in my reading on Hitler.

2.       What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

My wife and I have taken trips to historical sites (Monticello, Civil War battlefields, etc) and I am currently the president of the Penelope Melson Society, a friends of the library organization for the Ingram Library at the University of West Georgia. We sponsor a big exhibit each semester to bring people to the library. All have focused on some historical subject (FDR, Anne Frank) and we are just now (October 13 – December 7) opening a very large exhibit on World War II abroad and in Georgia. (I hope all of you can come. It includes talks by two historians; one, on Oct 28, will deal with how the war changed the South and a second, on Nov 11, will treat how the war affected eating habits and food practices in general. This Friday night, Oct 17, we are having an evening of World War II era music and dancing. A 20 piece big band will provide the music. If you think you would like to know more about the exhibit, and perhaps attend, send me your mailing address and I will see that you receive a mailing. ) I read a lot for pleasure – mostly mysteries and magazines such as the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly). I never read for pleasure in my area of specialization (American Revolution and the Early Republic), but I like to read about Nazi Germany, World War II, early Christianity, and the Kennedy Assassination.    

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

My career was as a historian. I taught history in high school for two years before going on to grad school. Thereafter, I taught for 38 years in college. I retired from teaching in 2004. From the moment I completed grad school I was writing history, something I continue to do 43 years later. I found teaching to be immensely interesting and rewarding, and always challenging, but I also found that it did not completely fulfill what I wanted from history. While writing seminar papers in grad school, and certainly while researching and writing my doctoral dissertation, I discovered that research and writing deepened and broadened my understanding  of history, and it enabled me to go places in my thinking about historical events that I could not go through reading and teaching.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?

It provides one with a good sense of human nature, national behavior, and the character of a people. It gives one the prism through which an understanding of contemporary politics can be derived. It also gives one some facility for assessing contemporary leaders, for appreciating their strengths and understanding their failures. Through history, one can learn about himself or herself. If you were raised in the South as I was – I grew up in Texas – an understanding of Southern history is crucial for coming to grips with the culture and thinking of the world about you.

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

My area of specialization, which I decided to pursue while in grad school, is the American Revolution and the Early Republic – roughly the fifty years period beginning with the Seven Years’ War in the 1750s and running through the Election of 1800. I was fascinated by how a revolution could occur and the twists and turns it could take. The Revolutionary War, I thought, was as dramatic as any great event in history. The era has a fascinating cast of characters and it is far enough in the past that a rich treasure trove of primary sources available. In addition, because of its remoteness, a student of the period can treat it dispassionately.   

6.      What are the most important lessons from the colonial and revolutionary period and who are the most important figures that we should know today?

Of course, one should be familiar with the Founders and the writings of Thomas Paine contain treasures that enrich even today. Students should understand that the Founders were men and not saints. They had their agenda and they made mistakes. Some are overrated, some underrated, in my judgment. Among the great lessons are how and why the Revolution occurred, and what it meant to contemporaries and what it means to us today. It is important to understand, too, how Britain through a series of wrongheaded decisions lost its American empire. The great tragedy of the Revolution is that it failed to bring an end to slavery. But maybe the biggest lesson to be learned is that in the 1790s when faced with provocations, first from Great Britain and then France, Presidents Washington and Adams resisted those chanting for war (leftists in the case of the crisis with Britain and rightists in the case of that with France) and maintained the peace, which was just what the infant US needed.

7.      Tell us about your most recent book and what projects you are working on now?

 My last book, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, appeared in 2013. I wanted to understand what shaped and drove each man, their dreams and their motives, their mistakes and their great contributions, and it was a vehicle for understanding the partisanship of the 1790s.

This spring I submitted a manuscript to Bloomsbury Press entitled Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It. It went to press about a month ago and is slated for publication next May. I taught the American Revolution course about thirty times in my career and also taught about the Revolutionary War numerous times in my course on US Military History.  I always wanted to write my own version of the American Revolution – why it occurred and why the war ended as it did – and my publisher has given me the opportunity to do so.

This summer I was given a contract to write a book that will look at Jefferson, Paine, and James Monroe. All were revolutionaries who believed the American Revolution could provide the spark to trigger similar revolutions throughout the western world. The book will deal with their ideas, dreams, activities, and disillusionment. The book is tentatively entitled The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Jefferson, Paine, Monroe and the Dream of Revolution. I began writing early this past summer, but the manuscript is not due until May 2017 and the book is likely to appear in 2018.

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