Bailyn’s Ideological Origins at Nearly 50: Brilliant Book of Bygone Age

Although I haven’t had the privilege of teaching a course on the American Revolution for a few years, this semester I’m leading a graduate student on an independent study of the Revolution, and among the books we’re reading is Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution Because it’s insights have become so central to much of how we think about the Revolution, it’s hard to remember just how pathbreaking the book was. Just as amazing are its flaws, which, even in its original forward, were on display for everyone to see, had they only looked.

Many have commented on how Bailyn’s book brilliantly painted a mindset that we hadn’t thought of before, launching a thousand books and essays on republicanism.  In contrast to Hartz’s liberal-as-soon-as-they-got-off-the-boat idea, or Becker’s that the founders were essentially Lockean enlightenment thinkers, Bailyn was the first to suggest that the founding generation had an entire wordview that was alien to us.  A worldview from the periphery (although he didn’t call it that) in which classical and enlightenment thinkers were used as nice rhetorical window dressing, but all within a frame defined by Trenchard and Gordon.  Having just read the book again, I’m struck anew by how well Bailyn describes this mindset, and how, if one accepts its premises, how logical rebellion must have seemed.  On its own terms, as an explication of what Bailyn saw in the pamphlets he was reading, the book, as they say, rocks.

Of course, I’m also struck by how open Bailyn was about the limits of his study while at the same time utterly ignoring them. In considering these pamphlets in the context of the causes of the American Revolution, Bailyn wrote that they

confirmed my rather old-fashioned view that 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. (x)

In other words: reading only sources by elites, to elites, I have determined that elite in favor of the Revolution did not want to overturn society.  Go figure.

Now, if Bailyn had simply written, “Here’s the ideology of the people who wrote these pamphlets, and presumably their audience, and here’s what motivated them to revolt,” then the book would not have attracted so many detractors.

But the problem is, he insisted that these pamphlets represented all of Americans, rather than a slice of them—even though he knew better.  As he also wrote in the forward,

At no point did I attempt to describe all shades of opinion on any of the problems discussed… There were of course articulate and outspoken opponents of the Revolution… but the future lay not with them but with the leaders of the Revolutionary movement, and it is their thought at each stage of the developing revellion that I attempted to present, using often the shorthand phrase “the colonists” to refer to them and their ideas. (xiv)

In other words, I knew there were many variations of thought, and many people who disagreed with the lines of argument that I’ve identified, but heck, I’ll use language that implies that these were the only ideas there were.

So brilliant, so knowing, and still so flawed.  And yet fixing those flaws would have been easy: a paragraph in the forward indicating the limits of the study, and, throughout the book, phraseology that would have been a little more circumspect.

Makes me think, once again, that having a strong editor, and being able to edit things electronically so easily, makes for more careful scholarship in two senses.  In the first sense, editors are likely to pick up on such things, and changing them electronically is easy.  In the second sense, we make much smaller claims for our work, and qualify it in ways that are more intellectually defensible, but rile up less debate.  As with all changes, something gained, something lost.

Whatcha thinkin'?

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