Reviews of Apostles of Revolution

Publisher's Weekly
 (May 2018)

History professor John Ferling (Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It) effectively blends narrative history with analysis to provide a new perspective on the U.S.’s founding. He traces the evolution of “three politically engaged Founders who shared a sense of hopeful possibilities about liberating and empowering ordinary people” and the consequences of their ambitions. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Monroe had all hoped that the revolt against England would catalyze political upheaval throughout Europe, and they struggled to accept both the disappointing results of the French Revolution and forces within their own country that they considered antidemocratic. Ferling walks readers through the arc of each man’s life, injecting nuance and avoiding idealization; for example, he contrasts Jefferson’s advocacy of treating people equally with his persistent refusals to publicly condemn slavery. Ferling brings the political struggles of his subjects to life, enriching readers both familiar and unfamiliar with the period’s history with discussion of the now-obscure Federalist schemes to deny Jefferson the presidency in 1800. By noting present-day parallels to the risks that 19th-century oligarchs posed to democracy, Ferling has produced the best kind of popular history, one that illuminates why remembering the past is vital for the present.


Library Journal (April 2018)

Ferling (emeritus, history, Univ. of West Georgia) traces the philosophies and ac­tivities of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Monroe from the be­ginning of the American War of Inde­pendence through the unstable postwar period and French Revolution to Jeffer­son's 1800 presidential win. The author argues that these men were the most radi­cal champions of revolution, who believed that the war. was only the beginning of an indispensable movement that would dramatically transform the colonies and then advance to Europe to spread egalitarian changes throughout the old world. Each earnestly witnessed and participated in the French Revolution (Paine's harrow­ing experiences are singularly gripping) and lamented its ultimate failure bur never lost faith in republican ideals. They vehe­mently fought Hamiltonian resistance to republicanism during the 1790s;Jefferson's (Declaration of Independence) and Paine’s ( Common Sense; Rights of Man) progressive writings had groundbreaking global im­pact. Ferling scoured the papers of many prominent players to reveal the radically egalitarian political, social, and economic ideas of this ambitious trio, demonstrating how each sacrificed to promote his beliefs. VERDICT This compelling narrative will appeal to both scholarly and popular 18th­century history enthusiasts as well as those who value representative government.


Booklist (March 15, 2018)

Ferling, a prolific and accomplished historian, makes the case for the radicalism and anti-authoritarianism of three diverse individuals, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Monroe. Highly regarded for his expertise in Revolutionary-era history (Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, 2011), Ferling compels his readers’ interest in this dense but clearly written analysis of the period of the American and French Revolutions. Paine is essentially the book’s central character, though Monroe, as ambassador to France, is critical in securing Paine’s release from a French prison during the Reign of Terror. Ferling’s bringing together of events in Europe and America is unusual and insightful; his treatment of the execution of Louis XVI, which Paine opposed, is notably touching, and his account of those of Louis’ widow, Marie Antoinette, and of the French multitudes suitably horrifying. If Ferling makes a better case for the similar ardor of his three protagonists than for their appropriateness as interrelated subjects of a book, he nevertheless provides a sophisticated view of revolutionary times on both sides of the Atlantic.


Kirkus Reviews (February 2018)

A history of three of the Founding Fathers who fought relentlessly "for nothing less than the dignity, equality, and rights of man in America and throughout Europe and England." Except for stressing the revolutionary credentials of his subjects—Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Monroe—Ferling (Emeritus, History/Univ. of West Georgia; Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It, 2015, etc.) delivers solid, conventional biographies, so readers searching for lives of the Founders can kill three birds with this one stone. All three men supported rule of the common man, but only Paine could not be accused of hypocrisy. He hated slavery and the seizure of Indian lands and never had much money, but his later attacks on George Washington and organized religion made him so unpopular that some Americans have never considered him a true Founding Father. Members of the Virginia aristocracy, Jefferson and Monroe opposed slavery in theory but treated their own slaves poorly. Jefferson is well-known for proclaiming that an ideal nation consists of small, independent farmers whose representatives would rule with a light hand. What he meant was that these sturdy yeomen would elect responsible gentry like himself who knew how to govern large groups of citizens. He was most unhappy when the electorate turned to crude, less-educated types more to their taste—e.g., Andrew Jackson. Mostly a follower of Jefferson and president from 1817 to 1825, Monroe is the least known of the three, so readers will find his biography particularly illuminating. Ferling matured during the turbulent 1960s when a school of historians believed that revolutionaries were cool and that traditional elitists like Washington and Adams lacked a je ne sais quoi. Though he has moved beyond this camp, a trace remains in this excellently opinionated history. Another winner of early American history from a renowned practitioner.