Faces Of Revolution: Personalities And Themes In The Struggle For American Independence, by Bernard Bailyn
This book, if a relatively obscure one within the author’s body of work, demonstrates why it is that Bailyn is such a reliably excellent author concerning the politics of the American Revolution, and that is his ability to find the unfamiliar in the familiar, and to demonstrate the change that takes place in one’s thinking when one adopts different fundamental assumptions. In a revolutionary situation, people can very easily misunderstand each other and fail to communicate because they no longer share common worldviews and frameworks for interpreting the events of their time and the other people with whom they share those times with. And that understanding of the importance of framing, and just how hard it is to get it right, allows the author to come to some very insightful observations in sketches about notable and obscure Founding Fathers as well as some of the themes that were involved in the American revolutionary experience. Naturally, as one might expect, this book is informed by the massive amount of research and writing and thinking that the author has done regarding the American Revolution, and some of the author’s favorite characters from the period, like the elusive Thomas Hutchinson, make their appearance here as both figures in their own right as well as favored enemies of others.
This book is a bit more than 250 pages and it is divided into two parts and ten chapters. The first part of the book consists of various personalities that were involved in the American Revolution that the author has written intriguing sketches on, most notably relating to insights gained from the publishing of massive bodies of work about them (I). So, for example, we begin with a discussion on John Adams and the author’s thoughts on the revelations found from his early diaries and the patterns of provincialism that endured (1), before moving to Thomas Jefferson’s complex relationship with Europe and an intriguing interpretation of the Dialogue between Head And Heart (2). The author discusses Thomas Hutchinson and how he was viewed by others, much to his misfortune (3), before turning his attention to the logical fallacies but skill of Thomas Paine (4), as well as the intriguing index and commentaries of the obscure Harbottle Dorr (5), which is then followed by a look at the relationship between religion and revolution in three obscure American figures, namely Andrew Eliot, Jonathan Mayhew, and Stephen Johnson (6). The last four chapters of the book are taken up in a look at themes regarding the American Revolution (II), namely the transformational nature of 1776 in Britain and the United States (7), the political experience and radical ideas in 18th century America (8), the central themes of the American Revolution (9), and the ideological fulfillment of the American Revolution (10), after which there are notes to chapter 10, original publications, and an index.
In order to better understand the American Revolution, it is sometimes necessary for us to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. The author engages in both of these tasks throughout the book, demonstrating how it was that the federalists, for example, sought to reframe the question of government so as to avoid at least some of the anarchical implications of the American Revolution by implying that the power of the federal government would not necessarily be coercive and abusive (though, as recent history has demonstrated, it needs little encouragement to be so). Likewise, the author makes the familiar strange by discussing aspects of the founding personalities that are obscure, whether it is looking at the prolonged adolescence and self-aware awkwardness of John Adams or whether it is the strange way in which Thomas Hutchinson’s restraint led him to be viewed in a strangely extreme fashion simply because he was not extreme enough to make his point well understood, or whether it is through the examination of the perspective of the American founding from very obscure American patriots whose understanding of the religious motivations and background of the American revolutionary experiernce are remarkable if obscure. By and large, this book is another triumph from Bailyn in his writings about the American Revolution and its context.