37: Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (round 2)

Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution argues that the ideology of the American Revolution was based on the usual combination of Enlightenment thought, religion, English common law, classical literature, but also on the “peculiar strain of anti-authoritarianism bred in the upheaval of the English Civil War.”  Bailyn’s critical intervention was that the Revolutionary generation were not a cabal of philosophical intelligentsia using Enlightenment principles to construct the ideal society; they were a bunch of real-world people operating within an ideology that had both British and American roots, and they overthrew British rule because this ideology led them to suspect a British conspiracy against liberty.

Bailyn comes to this conclusion by closely reading the pre-1776 pamphlets produced in the colonies regarding the “Anglo-American struggle” – political theory, history, polemics, sermons, correspondence, and poems – for the “assumptions, beliefs, and ideas – the articulated world view – that lay behind the manifest events at the time.”  Rather than focus on “Enlightenment platitudes,” he looks for what the leaders of the Revolution were “actually saying,” and where their words and ideas had come from.  He calls his method “deeply contextualist,” but it feels more like the myth and symbol approach of Henry Nash Smith or Leo Marx, where a popular text is read as though it contains clues to what the people were really thinking at the time.  And he comes up with a picture of pre-1776 ideology that mixes British and American ideas with American real-world experience: a growing consciousness that Americans could and should be free, a suspicion that the corrupt and despotic British Empire (especially the church of England) was plotting to take liberty away from all English-speaking people, and a Revolution designed to save America from corruption and tyranny and preserve the rights of liberty.

This worldview, and the Revolution and Constitution that came out of it, came out of English thought and developed in reaction to British policies, so the Revolution was not a radical break.  It was, however, the beginning of a country that was fundamentally different from England: English government had developed out of the accretions of history; America’s would develop out of ideology, an amalgam of real-world experiences, ideas, philosophy, politics that both drew on its English heritage and was unique unto itself.

You can check out round 1 here.

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