Review: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967 (publisher’s link is to 2017 Fiftieth Anniversary Edition).

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.

One thought on “Review: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: June 2022 | Bob on Books

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