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.