Book Review: The Ideological Origins Of The American Revolution

The Ideological Origins Of The American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn

In one sense, this book is not a particular surprise.  If you are familiar at all with the writings of Bernard Bailyn [1], you will have some idea of what you are getting here:  a thoughtful and scholarly account that has elegant and highly quotable prose as well as an attention to strong standards of both quantitative and qualitative elements.    You know you are going to get a book that is well-researched and worthy of reflection, and one that will come from an unexpected angle.  You may not be sure how his books will be different from the usual treatment of the material they cover, but you know they will be different.  All of that is true for this volume, which takes about three hundred pages or so to cover its subject, the roots of American republican political philosophy.  Anyone who is familiar with Bailyn’s work as a whole will know that he is going to discuss something of importance that other historical presentations ignore and that the study is going to be intense and in-depth and that it will show a remarkable degree of evenhandedness in its approach, and that will likely be enough for those who are fond of his writing to explore this volume, which won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize as well as a Bancroft Prize in 1968.

The structure of this book is straightforward, all the more stark in pointing out the immensely important nature of its contents for understanding the political history of the American Revolutionary generation.  First the author begins by looking at the literature of the American Revolution and comparing it to the polemical literature of Great Britain, which was generally of a more technically proficient quality, which makes sense given the fact that American writers were amateur writers who were busy in their day jobs.  After this the author spends a great deal looking at the sources and traditions of American political writing, not only looking at the familiar Greco-Roman and Enlightenment citations, but also spending a great deal of time looking at a forgotten and vitally important strain of obscure English opposition writing from the 17th and early 18th century.  After this Bailyn examines the American experience through a theory of politics that involved liberty and power, and that included a particularly pessimistic view of power.  Following this is a lengthy discussion of the logic of rebellion that proceeded from the premises of American political thought that led both future Revolutionaries and the British/Loyalists to go to the brink because of competing conspiratorial worldviews.  After this, Bailyn examines the transformation that book place over the period between 1765 and 1775 in American thoughts about representation and consent, constitution and rights, and sovereignty that made a break with the British Empire inevitable.  The final chapter adds a great deal of relevance by looking at the contagion of liberty into other areas outside of political theory to issues of slavery, the establishment of religion, democracy, and the deference and respect owed to superiors, all of which were drastically affected by American political rhetoric in ways that would have dramatic effects on the future of the American Republic.

It should go without saying that this book is of the most use to those who have an interest in the political history of the 17th and 18th centuries in the English speaking world [2].  This particular topic demonstrates the importance of the marginality and peripheral status of the English-speaking colonies of North America.  For much of our history, political trends that were subsumed in Continental Europe were allowed to flourish in the North American colonies, and the result is a distinctive and distinctively paranoid political culture that continues to shape the differences between the United States and European culture as a whole.  It is of the utmost importance that America has had a vibrant political culture that heavily indulged in the dark musings of country political philosophers who thought the worst of those in power.  This book, and others like it, are helpful in explaining where we come from, and that along makes this sort of book immensely useful to read.  We cannot do something about the sort of political impasse we find ourselves in unless we know how it is we got to this point–where our political culture has been shaped for centuries by a great mistrust for authority, which has somewhat predictable consequences in our own place and time.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

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