The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn is an essential book for anyone interested in the American Revolution or in the history of government in general. First published in 1968, this book is profoundly important in understanding the key intellectual roots and issues related to the Revolution and the founding of the American State and Federal Governments. The version of the book that I read had more recent material added by the author. Folks who I know in academia tell me that this book is required reading for many history students. There is good reason for this.
To comprehend the basis of this work, it is important to understand the role that pamphleteers played in the intellectual conversation and discourse of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century English and Colonial societies. Pamphlets, ranging from a few pages to dozens of pages long, were essentially essays that were circulated throughout English and Colonial society.
“These pamphlets form part of the vast body of English polemical and journalistic literature in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries to which the greatest men of letters contributed”
These tracts were produced in droves by English and Colonial writers. They covered social, religious and political issues. They ranged from serious analyses of issues, to biting parody, to scathing personal attacks. The author goes on to describe them,
“Explanatory as well as declarative, and expressive of the beliefs, attitudes, and motivations as well as the professed goals of those who led and supported the Revolution, the pamphlets are the distinct literature of the revolution.”
The writers varied from common middle class folks to some of the greatest minds of the time including David Hume, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, to name just a few. Some pamphlets themselves were famous, Paine’s Common Sense being a notable example. Pamphleteers would often engage in “conversations” and “arguments,” one writer responding to another, who would respond in turn, and so forth.
Bailyn conducted meticulous research on tens of thousands of these documents. As a result, he yielded great results. He references dozens of these works within this book. The author mines multiple intellectual threads that fueled not only the rebellion, but also the thinking that led to the eventual construction of the American Constitution.
Multiple subjects are covered in extreme detail, ranging from any government’s right to tax, individual rights, balance of governmental powers, religion and government, and slavery, to name just a few. Most of these ideas and controversies dated back to before the English Civil War. Bailyn picks these threads up via the various pamphlets that addressed them. The evolution of relevant ideas is often followed for over a century, as they were eventually taken up by Colonial thinkers, who in turn shaped them through the American War for Independence and up to the ratification of the United States Constitution.
This book is detailed and digs into many of these ideologies and issues in great depth. It is instrumental in furthering the understanding of the Revolution as well as of the history of government itself. Many concepts and conflicts pertaining to current day democracies were formulated during this period and will be familiar to anyone who now follows current events and politics. It is striking just how many of these issues are still relevant and debated today. Issues such as the power of government, Federal verses local control, taxes, etc. are still hotly contested in the twenty-first century.
I must mention the current debate in America between those who contend that the American Revolution was driven by Christian Ideals verses those who contend that Enlightenment Secular Ideals drove it. While this issue is not directly addressed in this work, this book makes it clear that both played a part in all sorts of complex ways. Reading this book has made me understand how the entire premise of the debate is untenable.
Bailyn’s writing can be somewhat dry at times. Also, a basic knowledge of the American Revolution, The United States Constitution, English history especially as it pertains to the Magna Carter, The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution will be extremely helpful for prospective readers. As a result of the above, this book might bore those who are just casually interested in these subjects. Thus, I would recommend this work only to the very interested. For those who have such a strong interest in these topics however, this book is a gold mine.
Wow, this sounds to be a deep read .... perhaps best left to those with an interest in the subject matter?
Hi Tracy - Indeed, I would say this one is for those already very interested in these subjects.
Thanks for posting on this. Bailyn had a collection release not too long ago, but instead of reading it I went to this and "Voyages to the West" by him. Both were extremely good reads, and I want to revisit them again. Thanks for the push. I like that he doesn't look for easy answers. A gold mine indeed!
Thanks for your excellent commentary on Bernard Bailyn's excellent book. It is surely a dense work, but more importantly a thorough and objective analysis of the ideas that the leaders of the American Revolution held. It is these ideas that provided the foundation for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers among the more famous of America's founding documents.
I admire this work as some of the best historical writing that I have encountered.
I know you love reading about the American Revolution and this one sounds great for those who do. Interesting about the pamphleteers and the impact they had on the public. When I read Marie Antoinette's biography, there was mention of the same kind of thing and how the newpaper was swaying public opinion.
Funny how it is much the same today, the media focuses on us what they want us to see.
Great post as always.
Great review, Brian! This sounds like a fantastic book. You know my husband and I have an ongoing debate about the legitimacy of the American Revolution. (I think it was legitimate and he thinks it was an illegal rebellion). I'd be interested to read this book and see what it has to say. I'm going to go put it on my Amazon wish list so I don't forget. Have a great day!
Hi Dwight - I have not read anything else by Bailyn. Thanks for the recommendation, I will look for those books too.
Hi James - As you point out, the ideas explored in this book helped not just to formulate those historic documents, but government and civil society in the United States and beyond.
Hi Naida - I understand that the pamphleteers did a great impact on the French Revolution also.
I think that I would compare them more to social media as opposed to mainstream media. There really was a randomness it seems like any member of the middle class and up could participate. (I would be remiss if I did not mention that this middle class was exclusively white. Also, such communications activities were almost exclusively only available to men.)
Thanks Sharon. The legality of the rebellion was indeed a subject of debate in that time also.
Though not exactly a legality issue, as someone who does believe that violence can be justified when resisting oppression, tyranny or aggression, I think that it is difficult to justify violence in the name of resisting British rule in the case of the Colonists.
This actually sounds wonderful. Thanks for the recommendation. The Pamphleteers actually interest me as well. I always thought it was interesting that John Adams bought 2 copies of Common Sense when it first came out. One for himself and one for Abigail Adams. A pamphlet at least could give room for some logical argument. (I'm sure many were inflammatory/emotional and illogical.) On facebook both right and left political parties have those one-picture memes that are inflammatory but leave the logic far behind.
Not sure this appeals as a whole, although funny enough the secular verses religion as influences does hold some interest for me
Hi Heidi - At times the Pamphleteers were inflammatory and downright nasty. Others were reasoned and analytical.
Though there is a lot of lowbrow simplicity on today's social media, there is also a lot of depth and nuance if one looks for it. Some can even be found on our blogs.
Hi Gary - I do think that one needs to be very interested in these subjects to enjoy this book.
The enlightenment religion thing does dig a bit into more general Western Culture.
Brian Joseph, this really does sound fascinating, even though I sometimes lack the patience for "dry" history books (I favor historical fiction these days). I'm interested to learn more about the Pamphleteers. Excellent commentary, as always.
Thanks Suko. The pamphleteers were fascinating. They seemed to engage in such a rich and vibrant communication and exchange of ideas.
Hi Brian, too bad the author doesn't make the info in his book more accessible to the lay person or reader like me. I like history (in fact I was a history major long ago!) but now I like reading history for pleasure. This one sounds very interesting but perhaps it's written too dry. It seems like a good grad student text. But I am interested in the American Revolution ... and the Colonial period for sure. Cheers.
Hi Susan - Indeed this book is less accessible then many of the more popular histories.
If you are interested in the era, it might be worth a try however. If you do try it I would be curious as to what you think.
I think I included this book in a blog post about excellent July 4th reads, a couple of years ago. I must confess to not having read it yet, though. Now that I have a blog dedicated to classics, literary fiction, and nonfiction, I must definitely get to it!
How interesting that the author discusses the role of pamphleteers in this work. I had no idea they had such an important role in the American Revolution. I do remember reading Paine's "Common Sense" in high school though.
I have always had the impression that it was Enlightenment ideals that drove the American Revolution. The Catholic Church usually backed monarchies, with this whole notion of the divine right of kings.
As always, your commemtary is very interesting and thorough. Superb job, Brian!! : )
Sounds like a really good book Brian! I'm woefully under-read about war in general, so I doubt I'd be able to bully through this one. My dad says he really enjoyed it, though. He's had a specific interest in the ideologies of WHY these educated men would rebel against their government. This book was exactly what he was looking for.
As far as war books go, I'm much more interested in the sociology of war than the battles. Why do people fight? What impact did it have on local and world society? Things like that.
Thanks so much Maria.
Enlightenment ideals did play a major part in driving the American Revolution.
But so did a Protestant distrust of central authority and power. This sort of paralleled Protestant distrust of the Catholic Church, which also represented centralized power.
Hi Rachel - I used to me more interested in the Battles and now I also am more interested in the other stuff. The American Revolution in particular was a lot more then battles, as books like this illustrate.
You're right -- it was the Protestants who were responsible for the eventual decentralization of power. It seems that every modern nation where Protestantism is the predominant religious viewpoint has a history of democracy and democratic ideals. These countries are more secular, as well.
My knowledge of these matters is, alas, very inadequate indeed....I am greatly indebted to you and your wonderful posts for acquainting me with the historical currents and eddies involved. : )
I'm making a note of this one; thanks for the excellent review. You raise a lot of the important issues currently debated (though most politicians would probably want ignorant constituents, as they can make anything of history they like). There's also a question (I think I saw this brought out in a Sheldon Wolin book) of how we can manage to maintain a democracy at home while exercising imperial powers abroad. Did the founding fathers ever conceive of such a thing?
Hi Hila- You raise a very good point about imperialism and Democracy.
I believe that several thinkers of the time addressed the issue. Jefferson in particular was concerned about it and believed that imperialism would ruin a Republic.
I have not read Sheldon Wolin but I just Googled him. He looks to a writer that I would like.
I have to admit that I find American politics very confusing: it just doesn't look exactly democratic from the outside, and the history of American Imperialism, especially in South America, and the whole slavery thing, is all puzzling to me. I don't know anything much about American history, and I don't think this book would be the best place to start learning, but it does sound like an excellent text for those really interested in the subject.
I like the way that people were able to publish their thoughts and engage in arguments via pamphlets - sort of like modern-day blogging, in a way. :)
Hi Violet - The things that you mention were indeed very anti - democratic trends in American History. Such issues were debated at this time. Like many things, the history of the United States is full of contradictions.
I totally agree, the pamphleteers were indeed a lot like modern day bloggers.
Great book, Brian, and although I read it too long ago to dispute your critique of the "dry" nature of the writing, the fact that the book won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft prize more than justifies the high praise you give it in the remainder of your post (Bailyn's "The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson" is also pretty great as I recall). By the way, those who find the history of American democracy and U.S. imperialism to be "very confusing" and perhaps contradictory might well brush up on their world history before attempting to understand the American variant; Athenian democracy was also accompanied by slavery and imperialism, so the combination of democracy and imperialism is at least 2,500 years ago and not at all unique to the American experience even though most of us would probably agree that it's a betrayal of the democratic ideal(s).
Hi Richard - Indeed the histories of Republics abound with indefensible actions including Imperialism.
Though folks like you and I might not find it too dry, I think that folks who are more accustomed to reading more recent histories where writing style seems to be given more emphasis might find the style here a little unengaging.
Brian, those readers need to toughen up or stick to their beloved historical fiction fluff pieces! :D
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