Book Review The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

matthew mckeon

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#1
In this essential text( published 1967) the American Revolution, Bailyn describes the evolution of ideas in response to the turmoil of the Revolution. Many of those ideas would resurface during the "secession winter" of 1860-1, so I though members would be interested in an extended review. Some of our--ahem-more senior members may remember the book from their college days.
 

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matthew mckeon

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#2
Bailyn's source materials are mainly the hundreds and hundreds of pamphlets published before and during the Revolution, some by famous figures like James Otis, others by more obscure figures, the most significant way that ideas were expressed and argued. Bailyn finds them heavy going he admits, composed by lawyers, ministers, merchants and farmers, even polished writers like Jefferson tended to adopt a pedestrian style. They are calm, rational, intended to persuade, seldom vivid or slashing, unlike their English counterparts could be.
 

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#3
Some of the themes:
Many of the writers went in for conspiracies, an enduring habit of thought in this country. The attractiveness of the conspiracy is that every action by a political opponent, no matter how minor or accidental could be fitted into the existing conspiracy structure. Occasional a writer would seem to realize this, and mutter that of course a design against the liberties of the Americans probably wasn't in some Parliamentary minister's mind. That's what they want you to think!

Of course we wouldn't fall for that now!

It brought to mind Lincoln's describing the house built by the "slave power."
 

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#4
Themes:
An constant theme was the corruption of the British government, claiming that a member of Parliament's votes were purchased either by powerful commercial interests or the King. In describing the person of a potential tyrant(who would rise to power amid, and by this corruption), his tyrannical attributes are vague enough that any political figure you dislike would seem to embody them.
 

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#5
Bailyn discusses the origins of the ideas the revolutionaries argued. Many made classical allusions to Athens and Rome, but often without actually reading them. Jefferson cites Plato confidently in defense of liberty, but after the war when he actually reads him, he's appalled by Platonic philosophy. He's relieved when John Adams confesses the same disgust: he thought Republic madness, "a satire."
 

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#6
As the resisters to British taxes confront the British government, they have to make some distinctions:
a. the difference between "internal" taxes(to be imposed by the colonials on themselves) and "external" taxes(the province of the Parliament). This leads to..
b. What is the nature of Parliament? Is it a national body that rules in the name of the nation as a whole, or are its members representatives, responsible mainly to their electors? Loyalists argued the former, which dealt with the fact there were no American M.P.s, as well as the fact that Parliamentary boroughs were often "rotten."
 

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#7
Which brings us to a question: sovereignty. British political thinkers argued that "sovereignty" was undivided, and unrestricted and embodied with Parliament. Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote that either the colonists accepted the decisions of Parliament without question or become independent, and that the concept of "internal" and "external" taxes was ridiculous. In response Americans began evolving the ideas of separating powers, and federalism. Although the phrase was not used: states' rights.
 

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#8
Thanks for posting. I consider this the most important book I've read about the Revolution and the founding era (the other is Gordon Wood's Radicalism of the American Revolution).
 

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#9
When independence was declared and the states had to write their own constitutions, decisions had to be made. The British constitution was seen to be successful because it 'balanced' the forces of the nation: the royal executive and the Parliament were balanced by the noble aristocracy, a group jealous of its rights and wishing to limit either other group.

But America had no aristocracy of this kind. What would balance the legislature? What would prevent either anarchy or tyranny?
 

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#10
One of the subcontroversies was over the establishment of the church. The English tradition from the founding of America was government regulation of an established church. Outside of New England, where it was the wrong established church, this hadn't really happened. Confronted with the task of writing their own state constitutions, Americans decided to separate religion and the government, and not privilege one church over the others.
 

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#13
Again and again the Americans complained or feared they would be the "slaves" of the British. It had, Bailyn writes, a particular meaning in the 18th century, the subjects of an absolute monarchy, like the French or Danes.

But there were a population of non metaphorical slaves in the 13 colonies, and the revolutionaries began to consider in their ferment for liberty and rights, if they were being a tad inconsistent.
 

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#14
Again and again the Americans complained or feared they would be the "slaves" of the British. It had, Bailyn writes, a particular meaning in the 18th century, the subjects of an absolute monarchy, like the French or Danes.

But there were a population of non metaphorical slaves in the 13 colonies, and the revolutionaries began to consider in their ferment for liberty and rights, if they were being a tad inconsistent.
Southern patriots like Jefferson acknowledged this inconsistency, but they could find no way to do without the institution of slavery without plunging their colonies into chaos.
In Massachusetts, James Otis struck a bolder note: "all men" meant all men "black or white." Samuel Cooke, a minister preached that in tolerating Negro slavery 'we, the patrons of liberty, have dishonored the Christian name." Some protested the Atlantic slave trade as an exercise in "force and power."
One of the harshest attack was by Baptist minister John Allen. "The iniquitous and disgraceful practice of keeping African slaves." was an abomination, in violated natural and inalienable rights of mankind, the laws of society and humanity, God's law and the charter of Massachusetts.

Colonial efforts to ban slavery, the Atlantic slave trade or tax it out of existence had been vetoed by royal governors or England. But it was, in Bailyn's words, a weak excuse. Levi Hart, a clergyman in Griswold, Conn, gave a barnburner of a sermon in 1775, stressing the inconsistency of protesting a tax on tea while inflicting infinitely more tyranny on the enslaved. He summed up: "when shall the happy day come, that Americans shall be consistently engaged in the cause of liberty?"
 
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#15
Matthew. Thank you very much for highlighting one of the premiere books ever written on the American Revolutionary Period. Bernard Bainlyn is one of my favorite historians of all time along with Forrest MacDonald and John Ferling. I have the pleasure of owning everyone of his books in first edition and signed. Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person but a client of mine's daughter attended Harvard Yard and she was very kind to have Bainlyn sign all of my books for me. He was still overseeing the library at Harvard at the time. Pat Young, once again, the book gods smiled upon me. Matthew you should purchase his remaining books and consume them as well as assiduously studying his excellent footnotes and bibliographies. The modern day historian can certainly learn a lot from him in terms of writing style and research methods. He sets the standard!!! Very nice thread!!! David.
 

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#16
18th century society was one of deference and a firm class structure determined by birth. One of the anxieties of the Revolutionary period was the disruption of any chance of a stable and harmonious society.

"But some, caught up in a vision of the future in which the perculiarities of American life became the marks of a chosen people, found in the defiance of traditional order the firmest of all grounds for their hopes of a freer life."

"It was only where there was this defiance, this refusal to truckle, this distrust of all authority, political or social, that institutions would express human aspirations, not crush them."
 



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