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The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)

by Bernard Bailyn

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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To the original text of what has become a classic of American historical literature, Bernard Bailyn adds a substantial essay, "Fulfillment," as a Postscript. Here he discusses the intense, nation-wide debate on the ratification of the Constitution, stressing the continuities between that struggle over the foundations of the national government and the original principles of the Revolution. This detailed study of the persistence of the nation's ideological origins adds a new dimension to the book and projects its meaning forward into vital current concerns.… (more)

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Summary: A study of the ideas conveyed through pamphlets that led to the revolution of the colonies against England.

The original edition of this work, published in 1967, won both Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn. What Bailyn does is to study the literature that preceded the revolution, much of it in pamphlets ranging from the more religiously based ones of Jonathan Mayhew to the more radical Thomas Paine. He identifies key themes that led to conflict and the Declaration of Independence.

Much of this was rooted in British pamphleteers including John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who protested what they saw as corruption in which royal ministers usurped the power of parliament. It was framed as a conflict of power versus liberty. The colonists began to seem themselves caught up in this conspiracy of power versus liberty, exemplified when the British quartered troops in Boston. Indeed, this conspiracy thinking, mirrored by the British acquired a kind of inevitability that led ineluctably to conflict. In one of his most sobering passages for our present moment, Bailyn writes:

“But the eighteenth century was an age of ideology; the beliefs and fears expressed on one side of the Revolutionary controversy were as sincere as those expressed on the other. The result, anticipated by Burke as early as 1769, was an ‘escalation’ of distrust toward a disastrous deadlock: ‘The Americans,’ Burke said, ‘have made a discovery, or think they have made one, that we mean to oppress them: we have made a discovery, or think we have made one, that they intend to rise in rebellion against us. . . we know not how to advance; they know not how to retreat. . . Some party must give way.’ “

The colonists took this basic opposition of liberty to power and transformed it to fit their context. Their cry of “taxation without representation” was a protest against the purported virtual representation they received in Parliament, in which measures could be decided in which they had no voice. Likewise, they challenged the abstract constitution of sovereign and Parliament, contending for a written constitution that clearly set the boundaries of government. Finally, in a colonial situation far removed from Parliament, they challenged its absolute authority, especially in matters of “internal” versus “external” taxes.

Bailyn then concludes with showing how this “contagion of liberty” spread to concerns about slavery, religious liberty, and the shape of their government, the idea of a democratic republic–one with no sovereign. Bailyn discusses the early deliberations including the fears that democracy could easily degenerate into anarchy, the developments of the ideas of bicameral legislatures, an executive, and of independent courts–designed to protect against both autocrats and anarchy.

Bailyn helps us understand not only the ideas that led to revolution but that led to how we constituted the United States, and the concern to uphold liberty against both absolute power and absolute disorder. It seems to me that what the early thinkers failed to anticipate was the partisan abyss that has developed that exacerbates the inefficiencies of a democratic republic resulting in a descent into disorder matched by the appeal of an authoritarian government that works. Ben Franklin, at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention was asked, “What kind of government have you given us?” Franklin replied, “A democracy, if you can keep it.” The question of our day seems to be “will we keep it?” Bailyn’s book can’t answer that for us, but it does trace the ideological heritage that led to the inception of our democratic republic. ( )
  BobonBooks | Jun 29, 2022 |
A thoughtful and insightful review of pre- and post-revolution literature to discern the ideologies underlying the revolution. The book started with a cataloging of pamphlets, broadsides and newspapers of the era. This major effort is a very well documented explanation of the arguments pro and con of an almost exhaustible list of topics. Much of the book is from quotations of the sources examined and the footnotes are voluminous and detailed. He examines the theories of governance, religion, economics, trade, and topics like slavery, royalty and the duty of man to God (as it relates to living in a commonly governed community). For anyone who has studied American history there is not much new here in terms of the substantive arguments; however, the close and tight analysis of the extant literature was a phenomenal effort, deserving of respect, admiration and utmost credibility of its intellectual (and actual) honesty.

This book is still very relevant as it touches on topics of governance which will always be pertinent. Many of the ideas and topics deserve more study and discussion now. Ideas such as term limits, responsiveness to the common good, preference to those with great wealth, and the privileges of the "nobility" are all relevant today as they were in the 1700's and indeed in ancient times.

Many references to early writers on government are mostly lost on us except for the pure academics of today. A reminder that we need to hear from upper level professors and heed them more than have in recent generations (IMHO). ( )
  DonaldPowell | Feb 5, 2019 |
In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn argues, “The American Revolution was above all else an ideological, constitutional, political struggle and not primarily a controversy between social groups undertaken to force changes in the organization of the society or the economy” (pg. x). Further, “Intellectual developments in the decade before Independence led to a radical idealization and conceptualization of the previous century and a half of American experience, and that it was this intimate relationship between Revolutionary thought and the circumstances of life in eighteenth-century America that endowed the Revolution with its peculiar force and made it so profoundly a transforming event” (pg. xi). Bailyn links the Revolution to earlier ideas circulating in the English world. He writes, “The fear of a comprehensive conspiracy against liberty throughout the English-speaking world – a conspiracy believed to have been nourished in corruption, and of which, it was felt, oppression in America was only the most immediately visible part – lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement” (pg. xii). Bailyn draws upon pamphlets and other popular print sources to make his argument.
Bailyn writes, “Political writing was an uncommon diversion, peripheral to their main concerns. They wrote easily and readily, but until the crisis of Anglo-American affairs was reached, they had had no occasion to turn out public letters, tracts, and pamphlets in numbers at all comparable to those of the English pamphleteers” (pg. 14). He reiterates, “The primary goal of the American Revolution, which transformed American life and introduced a new era in human history, was not the overthrow or even the alteration of the existing social order but the preservation of political liberty threatened by the apparent corruption of the constitution, and the establishment in principle of the existing conditions of liberty” (pg. 19). In the larger English tradition following the English Civil War and restoration, “the writings of the English radical and opposition leaders seemed particularly reasonable, particularly relevant, and they quickly became influential. Everywhere groups seeking justification for concerted opposition to constituted governments turned to these writers” (pg. 52). In this way, “everywhere in America the tradition that had originated in seventeenth-century radicalism and that had been passed on, with elaborations and applications, by early eighteenth-century English opposition publicists and politicians brought forth congenial responses and provided grounds for opposition politics” (pg. 53).
According the Bailyn, “what gave transcendent importance to the aggressiveness of power was the fact that its natural prey, its necessary victim, was liberty, or law, or right” (pg. 57). In this way, “the colonists’ attitude to the whole world of politics and government was fundamentally shaped by the root assumption that they, as Britishers, shared in a unique inheritance of liberty” (pg. 66). He continues, “A wide range of public figures and pamphleteers, known and read in America, carried forward the cries of corruption that had been heard in earlier years and directed them to the specific political issues of the day” (pg. 133). Furthermore, “the conviction on the part of the Revolutionary leaders that they were faced with a deliberate conspiracy to destroy the balance of the constitution and eliminate their freedom had deep and widespread roots – roots elaborately embedded in Anglo-American political culture” (pg. 144). In this way, “this critical probing of traditional concepts – part of the colonists’ effort to express reality as they knew it and to shape it to ideal ends – became the basis for all further discussions of enlightened reform, in Europe as well as in America. The radicalism the Americans conveyed to the world in 1776 was a transformed as well as a transforming force” (pg. 161).
Of the pamphlets, Bailyn writes, “All of these codes and declarations – whatever the deliberate assumptions of their authors, and however archaic or modern-sounding their provisions – were, at the very least, efforts to abstract from the deep entanglements of English law and custom certain essentials – obligations, rights, and prohibitions – by which liberty, as it was understood, might be preserved” (pg. 197). Bailyn argues that the Revolution was not intended as a social revolution. Despite this, “the views men held toward the relationships that bound them to each other – the discipline and pattern of society – moved in a new direction in the decade before Independence” (pg. 302). He concludes, “some, caught up in a vision of the future in which the peculiarities of American life became the marks of a chosen people, found in the defiance of traditional order the firmest of all grounds for their hope for a freer life. The details of this new world were not as yet clearly depicted; but faith ran high that a better world than any that had ever been known could be built where authority was distrusted and held in constant scrutiny; where the status of men flowed from their achievements and from their personal qualities, not from distinctions ascribed to them at birth; and where the use of power over the lives of men was jealously guarded and severely restricted” (pg. 319). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Sep 13, 2017 |
Through pamphlets and other written documents, Bailyn explores the ideas percolating in the American colonies—about the legitimate basis of authority, the nature of representation (whether it was local or general in nature, and thus whether an elected representative was supposed to work for the general good), and the appropriate division between king and legislature. Bailyn emphasizes that a lot of the men who ultimately became revolutionaries didn’t have a particularly well-worked out theory, but that they pushed theory in the direction of their concrete thinking about disobedience. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Jun 15, 2017 |
Contrasts other histories of the American Revolution (from Charles Beard onwards) which posit that the AR was solely an economic struggle of the landed gentry against taxes.

Textual analysis of pamphlets, which were popular during the pre-revolutionary era. These were not as well-written as their English contemporaries Swift or Addison or Defoe, but they were popular and influential among colonial citizens, and that's what counted.

First, Bailyn begins with ideological and historical analysis. These pamphlets have a large number of references to classical authors (Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, Cicero) on an ideal Republic, but also to the thought of the Enlightenment (Locke, Rousseau).

The main body of the argument is the struggle of Power vs. Liberty in early thought, and external vs. internal rule, more clearly defined powers and roles of government, and later the idea of popular sovereignty. Too much power lead to a tyrannical system, and too much liberty leads to anarchy, so the proper balance is between them both.

He also expands upon the early colonial belief in 'conspiracies' of corrupt ministers and the extractive colonial bureaucracy as a pretext for freedom. Once the revolution was accomplished, however, the catchy phrases of 'liberty' and 'personal freedom' expanded into new spheres, and shortly after, there were already heated discussions on abolition.

A contrarian view, but an interesting and well thought-out one. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Bailyn, BernardAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bourniche, LudovicTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington. The records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphlets, newspapers in all the colonies, ought to be consulted during that period to ascertain the steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the authority of Parliament over the colonies. - John Adams to Jefferson, 1815
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Whatever deficiencies the leaders of the American Revolution may have had, reticence, fortunately, was not one of them.
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To the original text of what has become a classic of American historical literature, Bernard Bailyn adds a substantial essay, "Fulfillment," as a Postscript. Here he discusses the intense, nation-wide debate on the ratification of the Constitution, stressing the continuities between that struggle over the foundations of the national government and the original principles of the Revolution. This detailed study of the persistence of the nation's ideological origins adds a new dimension to the book and projects its meaning forward into vital current concerns.

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