Field of Science

Book review: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

The Ideological Origins of the American RevolutionThe Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

While a slightly academic and challenging read, this book (first published in 1967 and then reprinted twice) is a seminal contribution to revolutionary and pre-revolutionary history and a must-read, not just for understanding the American Revolution but also some of the most important issues we grapple with now. The book is entirely based on pamphlets - essentially the Twitter of their times, but far more intelligent - that were written by people across all social strata in response to events in the 1750s and 1760s. These pamphlets were remarkably flexible, spanned anywhere between ten and seventy pages, and contained a wide variety of writing, from scurrilous, sarcastic, bawdy polemics ("wretched harpies" was a favorite derogatory term - I have long since thought of making a list of choice insults of those times) to calls for populist revolution to reasoned, highly erudite writings. More than any other written form of the era, they contain a microcosm of the basic thinking that led to the revolution.

Perhaps more than any other book I have come across, Bailyn's book helped me understand how far back the roots of the revolution went, how entrenched in English political philosophy and especially libertarian philosophy they were, how simplistic and incomplete the textbook version of “no taxation without representation” is, and how many of the central issues of both 1776 and 2019 are rooted in the core of Americans’ view of their own identity and geography going back all the way to the settlers.

A few key takeaways:

1. It's easy to underestimate the outsized impact that geography had on the colonists' thinking. Decentralized control was almost de rigueur in the vast wildernesses bordering Virginia or Massachusetts, so the idea of central control - both by Parliament in the 1760s *and* by a federal government in 1787 - was deeply unpalatable to many people. The abhorrence toward virtual representation in Parliament was only a logical consequence. You gain a much better understanding of Americans' fondness for states' rights and their fears of federal power by understanding this background.

This decentralized thinking also led quite naturally to freedom of religion - Bailyn cites the prominent struggles by baptists in western Massachusetts against taxation by the Congregationalists as an example - and more haltingly and less successfully, for calls to abolish slavery which although they did not make their way into the Constitution, did lead individual states to abolish the institution and to stop the slave trade.

2. Almost the entire debate about independence was about where the seat of sovereignty lay. For the English it lay in Parliament, but the colonists argued that while Parliament did have some central rights (there were some strenuous attempts to distinguish between "external" taxation that Parliament could impose and "internal" taxation that was the people's right - this argument was rapidly dropped), the people had "natural" rights that were outside all authority including parliament's.

The colonists were inspired in this thinking by Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Hume and this foundation is well known, but Bailyn makes a convincing case that they were inspired even more by the early 18th century English libertarians John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon and their predecessors, who in writings like the famous "Cato's Letters" argued against standing armies, lack of due process and absolute and arbitrary power. Some of these arguments went back to Charles I and the English revolution of the 1640s, so many of the leaders of the revolution had assimilated them way before 1776; Pennsylvania and New York even had written documents outlining some of the key provisions in the Bill of Rights as early as 1677. By the time the Stamp and Townshend Acts were imposed in the 1760s, taxation (which was a relatively minor grievance anyway) was only the last straw on the camel's back.

The biggest strength of the book is that it beautifully illustrates how thinking about decentralized control, natural rights and English libertarian philosophy was a common thread tying together so many disparate themes - independence, taxation and representation, abolitionism, religious freedom, geographic expansion, and finally, the great debate about the Constitution. The volume really reveals the core set of philosophies on which the country is founded better than any other that I have read. A groundbreaking contribution.