9: Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (round 1)

Having just read James Miller’s book on the 1960s, and  knowing that The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution was published in 1967, all I could think about while reading this book is what Bailyn thought about the social and political ferment all around him.  Was he hiding in an archive somewhere deep in the Harvard library system and researching the Revolution while his students were outside protesting in the streets?  Or was all that political unrest what drove him into the archives in the first place, and if that was the case, was he for social and political change, or against it?

Truthfully, I can’t quite tell (though I can guess) what his position was, but I do think his research was driven by a desire to understand and explain the present.  Using close readings of some 400+ pamphlets published in the colonies between 1760 and 1776, Bailyn makes two major arguments about the American Revolution.  First, he argues that the Revolution was steeped in the intellectual, historical, and political traditions of Europe, and thus it was not as radical of a break with the past as we like to think.  Second, he argues that it was “ideological,” or motivated by a desire to protect and extend a uniquely American worldview, and thus it was not as lofty and intellectual and idealistic as we like to think, either.

There are some obvious problems with Bailyn’s method.  Most notably, he claims to want to recreate the world of the Revolutionary generation, but he does so primarily by reading political pamphlets, and of these, he really only focuses on those that supported the revolution because, as he says, no one cares about the losers.  And, judging by some of the truly amazing conspiracy theories he uncovers, this approach would be kind of like listening to either NPR or Rush Limbaugh and assuming they spoke to the worldview of most Americans (which, let’s face it, they don’t).

However, he also comes up with some really fascinating stuff.  He argues that the American Revolution was inspired by an Enlightenment belief in liberty after all (and not, as Charles Beard claimed, by class warfare) and by religious beliefs in American exceptionalism (with a nod to his former mentor, Perry Miller), but also by a strain of British oppositional thought that he dates to the English Civil War and the Commonwealth period.  Drawing on little-known (to us) British writers like Algernon Sidney, Henry Neville, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and Benjamin Hoadly, Bailyn shows that this oppositional strain had two goals: to hold up and protect the liberty and freedom of the individual, and to expose the corruption, decay, and abuses of power in the over-centralized British government.  He then traces these two goals to American pamphleteers Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Otis (among others) and argues that, through them, Americans became increasingly suspicious of a vast British conspiracy to reclaim the colonies and take away their liberties.  And what better reason to start a revolution than to disconnect your pure, virtuous, simple new homeland from an ugly, corrupt, tyrannical, decaying, conspiratorial imperial power BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE??! 

Yeah.  That’s what I thought.

While the whole conspiracy angle might be a bit much, Bailyn’s connection between these oppositional British thinkers and the American Revolution does have important implications for the 1960s (and for today, too.)  Once he’s made the connection, he goes on to talk about how a democratic government works.  In his view, a democracy functions via the productive tension between regulatory institutions and a populace of active, informed individuals; by making our voices heard, we can constantly readjust the regulatory institutions so that they both respect our civil liberties and control for abuses.  It’s like we are in a perpetual revolution.  If the people rise up in an angry, unthinking mob (or lapse into uninformed submission), however, the system ceases to function, because in either case the government becomes too powerful.  The book reads, to me anyway, as both a cautionary tale about our responsibilities as American citizens and a narrative of faith in the flexible, evolving democratic system that the Revolution set in motion.

You can check out round 2 here.

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One thought on “9: Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (round 1)

  1. Barbara

    he sounds too idealistic. Looking at Americans now I wonder what he would think considering the state of our educational system, self-serving government officials, and greed.

    Reply

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