Book Review: The Origins Of American Politics

The Origins Of American Politics, by Bernard Bailyn

As someone familiar with the author’s work [1], I must say I enjoyed this book and had a good idea of what to expect from it given that familiarity.  One of Bailyn’s major strengths as a historian is to move beyond the cliches of what is popularly known about the political history of the colonial period and to integrate what was going on with the American colonies with the larger Atlantic world.  One thing as well that I appreciate about Bailyn is his restraint when it comes to contemporary politics.  A lesser writer would have hit the reader over the head with the negativity of how contemporary political problems are related to patterns that began in the colonial period, but Bailyn writes in detail about the colonial history and shows mastery of the relevant historiography (as per usual) and lets the reader draw the conclusions about the implications and consequences of America’s paranoid political culture.  This book is an example of how a writer manages to layer one’s discussion and how to remain relevant by focusing on the historical aspects and allowing the reader to bring their own context to that material.

The materials of this relatively short book (a bit more than 150 quarto pages) were originally the November 1965 Charles K. Colver Lectures at Brown University.  Although these are somewhat old essays, they retain a great deal of interest because they provided Bailyn with the opportunity to develop insights into the way that British country politics provided a fertile ground for colonials to understand their own political situation in conspiratorial and paranoid fashion, a tendency that has continued to contemporary political rhetoric.   The author begins by looking at the sources of American political culture (1) in a transplanted version of country politics that included radical Whig and radical Tory opposition literature to the later Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs.  After this the author examines the structure of colonial politics (2) and examines the explosive combination of the prerogative of governors and the colonial establishment with the weaknesses and rigidity of their position in the face of intransigent and highly democratic colonial legislatures, a storm that never ceased to be problematic in most of the British colonies and which led quickly to a desire for independence in the face of tightening efforts at integration by England in the post-1763 period.  The author then closes the essays with a look at the legacy of the colonial political order (3) with a struggle in legitimizing partisanship and a tendency to view opposition in conspiratorial and paranoid ways.

To put it bluntly, this is a great book.  If you are familiar with the general tenor and approach of Bailyn’s works, this book is broadly similar to his collections of essays where the author demonstrates his intimate awareness with sources as well as an approach that takes writers during the period on both sides of the Atlantic seriously.  Rather than assuming that writers were merely being overheated, he takes their fears seriously and examines how these fears sprang from a worldview where opposition was viewed in the most negative light.  And although these essays are more than half a century old, they remain relevant because they discuss long-term patterns that have remained consistent within American culture, namely the tendency on the part of people to accept partisanship and decry the corrupting influences of political patronage (crony capitalism and its cousins) while not often connecting the oppositional nature of American political culture to the problems of legitmizing dissent and keeping a political culture going without a continual sense of crisis in the absence of patronage and sheer bribery.  Bailyn’s book helps us to understand the roots of our own contemporary political crises in quarrels over the proper place of government and our simple lack of trust in those who would claim authority over us.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: The Origins Of American Politics

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    • I’m glad you appreciated this one; I just scheduled a biography of JQA to post, and I’ve got about ten or so volumes of the politically incorrect guides on tap as well to read shortly.

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