Book Review: To Begin The World Anew

To Begin The World Anew:  The Genius And Ambiguities Of The American Founders, by Bernard Bailyn

While I cannot say that I would entirely agree with the author’s politics, especially as he shows a sense of rhetoric about the complexities of modern life that would indicate too easy an embrace of the wicked progressives of our time, this book certainly makes for a thoughtful and witty discussion of various important and often neglected aspects of the experience of the American founding [1].  As a notable and preeminent historian of the Atlantic world, the author’s far-ranging reading and research and his embrace of quantitative data as well as his concern with individual and overarching narratives serve him well in this intriguing series of essays on the American founding and on the achievements of the founders to create a new nation despite and because of their marginal position on the periphery of European civilization.  Partly because the author is in command of a diverse amount of material relating to the history of early European imperialism in the Atlantic world, and partly because the author appears to have a sense of wit and a love of indirection, these essays are vignettes rather than a large work of history, but the book is an immensely thought-provoking one and enjoyable one that encourages me to read more of his works.

For readers of history, this book does not make a demanding read but it does make an enjoyable and insightful one, taking about 150 pages to cover five essays relating to the situation of American independence.  The first essay looks at the issue of politics and creative imagination, showing how the peripheral status of American provincials allowed them to come up with creative and novel political solutions that overcame the settled conventional wisdom of their time, and reminds us that our novel solution has become settled conventional wisdom in our own time.  The second essay looks at Jefferson and the ambiguities of freedom, showing how the combination of immense idealism and ruthless pragmatism in the strain of Jefferson’s character has made him vulnerable to being seen as a hypocrite because of his refusal to address the problems of slavery in his own life.  The third essay looks at the combination of realism and idealism in American diplomacy through an image-based discussion of Benjamin Franklin’s experience in Paris during the Revolution.  The fourth essay looks at how the context of the Federalist Papers and their creation has made them such a seminal discussion of American constitutionalism and then provides an additional note on how these papers have been used by the Supreme Court over history in seeking to understand the boundaries of American constitutional law and seek legitimacy for their own decisions.  The fifth and final essay looks at the subject of Atlantic dimensions, specifically the way in which the American experience during the War of Independence reverberated in European and South American history [2].

It is unclear why I have been unaware of this author’s work before.  Being a person of somewhat provincial background myself, born in the hinterlands of Appalachia, growing up in rural Central Florida, and long conscious of the way in which my background made me somewhat stigmatized by the more cosmopolitan people with whom I have often been associated, this author’s research interests strike a definite personal chord.  A combination of deep reading and broad interests makes this author’s work consistently appealing, and he was a prolific enough writer that it is quite possible there will be many more such books for me to uncover and maybe a few for me to add to my own library, seeing as my local library system only has a few of his works.  If you are looking for a book that gives a brief discussion of the importance of the marginality of the American experience for its influence on the world, this is a worthwhile book to read, especially in the way it makes the reader think about the influence of our background and context on our behavior and worldview.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/09/11/book-review-the-american-revolution-a-grand-mistake/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/09/09/book-review-independence-the-tangled-roots-of-the-american-revolution/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/08/01/book-review-guide-to-the-american-revolution-1774-1783/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/04/06/book-reviews-why-we-won-the-american-revolution-through-primary-sources-and-the-story-of-america-slavery-in-early-america/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/08/02/book-review-the-origins-of-american-slavery/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2014/11/26/book-review-the-german-element-in-the-war-for-american-independence/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/03/24/book-review-the-founding-conservatives/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/08/11/audiobook-review-george-washingtons-secret-six/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/05/05/audiobook-review-the-politically-incorrect-guide-to-the-british-empire/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/07/04/fertilizing-the-tree-of-liberty/

[2] One of the more notable ways this occurred was in Swiss history, where one writer in the pro-American Helvetic Society said that Swiss governments must be “aus dem Volke, durch das Volk, und fur das Volk,” or “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” thus anticipating Lincoln’s own memorable rhetoric of the Gettysburg address (144).

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: To Begin The World Anew

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Ideological Origins Of The American Revolution | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Royalist Revolution | Edge Induced Cohesion

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