Title: Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
Author: Bernard Bailyn
Categories: Intellectual History, Revolutionary War, Political History
Place: American Colonies
Time Period: 1640s-1776
Bernard Bailyn traces an intellectual history of the ideology that led up to the American Revolution (rather than a social or economic history) primarily through an examination of political pamphlets. He points to various strands of intellectual legacies (classical antiquity, Enlightenment rationalism, English common law, New England Puritans), but for him the most important was a strain of anti-authoritarian, Whig opposition political thought that originally stemmed from the period of the English Civil War and resulting Commonwealth in the 1640s-1650s. This "country" ideology was taken up two generations later in the 1720s and 1730s by opposition politicians, exemplified by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who resisted what they saw as the encroachment on Parliamentary authority by royal ministers embodied by Sir Robert Walpole. Some dominant themes of this ideology included the corruption of politics that led to a conspiracy against the balance of government.
This ideological grounding centered on the fundamental broader struggle between Power vs. Liberty, which were in a constant state of opposition throughout history. Later American colonists increasingly saw their own struggles with England as fitting within this grander historical narrative and that they were the last, best bastions of hope for defending a uniquely English tradition of liberty. Bailyn argues that this ideological legacy set up a deep mental framework or intellectual prism through which colonists interpreted all current actions. From this vantage point, events such as Britain stationing troops in Boston in 1768 took on huge intellectual meaning in the form of a deliberate conspiracy and assault on their liberty. This ideology was how they interpreted the world, which leads to a kind of intellectual determinism (they were going to see everything in a conspiratorial light).
Colonists then faced the challenge of adapting/transforming this legacy to fit their circumstances. They did so in three areas. First, through representation and taxation, colonists challenged the idea of virtual representation, a challenge that Bailyn says originated from their long-standing experience of decentralized local autonomy. Second, they had to reconfigure an older idea of the constitution, moving away from an abstract system of how a society was ordered to one that specifically placed limits and boundaries on different spheres of government. Finally, they had to make the most radical departure with the idea of sovereignty. This posed the greatest challenge for colonists, as they had to overturn a longstanding orthodoxy about the absolute and final authority of Parliament and move towards the idea of imperium in imperio, or having separate spheres - for example, the growing idea of "internal" vs. "external" taxation. Once again, this stemmed from the on-the-ground experience of colonists with local autonomy and governance.
Finally, all of these strands "spilled over" into other areas slavery, religion, democracy, and equality. In the realm of democracy, they feared the mob from below and moved to reconfigure the idea of a constitution from one that centered on social ordering to one that centered on pragmatic realism of how people organized themselves (factions, parties, etc.). In the realm of equality, it was deeply unsettling to people that everyone was equal under the law: if that was the case, what to make of the fact that some people were inherently superior to others?
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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